The Loudon plant is churning out a product derived from corn that the companies say can directly replace and improve upon petroleum-based ingredients in everything from carpets to clothes to cosmetics, saving energy and using renewable resources at the same time.
"The work that will be done here is on the leading edge of a biotechnology revolution, which I believe will change the way we power our cars, our trucks, our homes and our businesses," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said during a formal opening ceremony.
The plant is expected to make 100 million pounds of its bio-product annually. The plant may not reach full capacity for another year, but it already has shipped 85 rail cars of its bio-product since November.
"Up to this point, we have been focused on recycling products and putting that back in other products," said Jeffrey S. Lorberdaum, CEO of carpetmaker Mohawk Industries. "This is allowing us to take the next step in environmental sustainability."
By the fall, Mohawk will be marketing a line of carpet made entirely from the bio-ingredient from the Loudon plant.
DuPont and Tate & Lyle say their corn-based propanediol, or Bio-PDO, will find new uses because it helps fabrics take dyes more brilliantly, carpets become naturally stain resistant, face creams be gentler to the skin, and airplane de-icers biodegrade.
"It is the most significant invention since nylon," DuPont Chairman and CEO Charles "Chad" Holliday Jr. said in an interview with The Associated Press. The Wilmington, Del.-based company invented nylon in 1935.
"The functionality of this product is what really differentiates it," Iain Ferguson, chief executive of London-based Tate & Lyle, told the AP. "That gives us something which has a real edge."
The Loudon plant, about 35 miles south of Knoxville, uses corn sugar or glucose from an adjoining Tate & Lyle ethanol plant. An E. coli bacteria modified by DuPont scientists breaks down the glucose through a fermentation process much like making beer.
The result is a clear liquid compound that might be used in a quickly growing range of products, including fabrics, cosmetics, liquid detergents, boat hulls, ski boots and runway de-icers.
Brent Erickson, an executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., said that while DuPont and Tate & Lyle are not alone, the commercialization of their Loudon plant was a significant development in what he termed the third wave of a biotech revolution that began 20 years ago in medicine and then agriculture about a decade ago.
"It has gone beyond the doctor's office into consumer goods and other products that we never imagined," he said.
Holliday and Ferguson said they have factored rising corn prices, driven in part by growing demand for biofuels, into their equation.
Steven Mirshak, president of the DuPont-Tate & Lyle Bio-Products joint venture, said the price of the companies' Bio-PDO base is "similar" to nylon. A chemical version of the product was discovered in the 1940s but was too expensive to make.
"But with our new process using biology, we are able to produce PDO at a cost point where we can develop direct applications of its use in a variety of markets," he said, replacing petroleum counterparts.
Corn-based substitutes for petroleum are good for the environment, but experts have said they also contribute to a rise in global food import costs, making it harder for developing countries to feed their populations.
Holliday said DuPont brings an unusual perspective to the corn supply situation. The company also owns the major corn seed brand Pioneer and is devoting considerable resources to increasing its productivity.
"Every time you get something like this where you get a price increase, you get further investment in agricultural production," Ferguson said. "And there is clearly considerable further potential to raise the yields."