The cornfields surrounding Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing are a font of innovation. From humble ears of corn, MBI scientists have developed building blocks for drugs, even a salt substitute, and now a photoluminescent material. Research scientist Richard Turk discovered the "lumbinates" when he was analyzing corn-derived salt substitutes under ultraviolet light: One glowed in the dark.
Most phosphors, used in everything from lasers to laundry-detergent brighteners, are derived from carcinogenic benzene. But the MBI phosphors are biodegradable and nontoxic. The current formulas glow most visibly under UV light. That means they could be safely used in packaging and food products or as photoactivated switches in fiber optics. Turk and his team are working on a formula that would glow well under fluorescent light, too, for novelty candies and clothing. So far, some 300 companies are testing the new phosphors, including major cereal and candy companies. Chicago-based Ajax Adhesives Industries Inc., for instance, is developing a glue with the phosphor.