Performance-enhancing adjuvants: Using high-fructose corn syrup to increase herbicide activity

MSU AgBioResearch scientist Donald Penner's work with herbicide adjuvants has spanned the past three decades, advancing pesticide technology and producing one of the most valuable patents in MSU's history.

February 12, 2014

Donald Penner has been researching high fructose corn syrup-based adjuvants hor herbicides since 1980.

Since the dawn of chemical herbicides to help farmers protect their fields and eliminate weeds, the quest to improve them has never ceased. Few have done more to further that goal than Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Donald Penner. His work with herbicide adjuvants -- chemicals added to herbicides to increase their effectiveness -- has spanned the past three decades, advancing pesticide technology and producing one of the most valuable patents in MSU’s history. Today, Penner continues to expand on that technology, hoping to extend his patent and its many benefits into the future.

Penner, a professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, began working on herbicide adjuvants in 1980, testing a multitude of materials. During this time, high-fructose corn syrup  became readily available, and its price significantly dropped because of technological advances in the production process.

“I recalled some research done in the late ‘60s that applied sugar water to plant leaves,” he said. “The experiment worked, and the plants sucked up the sugar water. That got me thinking about the possibilities of this other new sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, and what we could do with that with a herbicide.”

Penner's technology has helped increase the market demand for and value of corn.Through his early experiments, Penner found that high-fructose corn syrup increased the activity of herbicides when it was applied to the foliage of a range of plants. He took his findings to the MSU Innovation Center, where his discovery was patented and licensed. Since then, Penner’s patented technology has become a staple of weed control programs in agriculture. Today, he experiments primarily with giant foxtail, velvetleaf and common lamb’s quarters, weeds that are particularly prevalent and costly to farmers, to further refine the effectiveness and applications of the technology.

“The adjuvant I’ve developed increases the absorption of herbicide in plants, increasing the herbicide’s activity,” said Penner, who received the 2013 MSU Technology Transfer Award for his adjuvant research. “It works for a number of types of herbicides and many different plants. It’s broadly applicable -- that’s what makes it so valuable.”

The MSU Technology Transfer Award is given to researchers or research groups who have achieved long-term success in the development, licensing and commercialization of intellectual property at MSU.

“Patents like this are not produced overnight,” Penner said. “I’ve been able to develop such a successful technology only by working hard at it for many years.”

Penner’s pioneering work with adjuvants has helped growers in two ways. First, it increased the market for corn by developing more uses for high-fructose corn syrup made from corn. 

“Secondly, from an environmental perspective, increasing herbicide effectiveness means you don’t need to use nearly as much of it to get the desired outcome,” Penner said. “It limits the amount of chemicals introduced into the environment and would, ideally, help farmers save money by allowing them to purchase less herbicide to get the same result. They’re able to do a lot more with less.”

These results -- increasing the utility of a domestic crop, limiting the amount of herbicide in agricultural products and reducing weed populations -- have combined to make Penner’s patent extremely valuable. Last year alone, adjuvants based on his research were applied to tens of millions of acres and generated more than $800,000 in royalties.

“Penner’s work is one of the highest earning active patent packages for MSU,” said Amber Shinn, marketing director for the MSU Innovation Center. The MSU Innovation Center handles the school’s intellectual property, annually launching more than 120 discoveries into patented products and start-up businesses.

Developing a royalty-producing patent was a goal for Penner, with every other research achievement in the project a steppingstone to that final result.

“Ultimately, the royalties this patent has brought in help support MSU and its people,” Penner said. “It supports future research and the efforts of MSU technology development for the agriculture industry.”

The patent is set to expire in 2017, and Penner is working to extend it.

“The goal now is to improve and find new uses for the technology,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is anticipate the problems and challenges farmers will face in the future because of new technologies and circumstances. My research has changed very much since I began here at MSU, and it’s still changing in order to help improve the practice of agriculture.”

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