George Washington Carver and the Chemurgy Movement
Since his death in 1943, George Washington Carver has been dubbed "the father of chemurgy" (more commonly known as biochemical engineering today), a type of chemistry that takes agricultural raw materials and converts them into nonfood industrial and consumer products. The word was coined in the 1930s, soon after Carver's rise to national and international fame.
Carver's interest in chemurgy was driven heavily by his desire to identify new uses for noncotton Southern crops. Despite less-than-ideal conditions, cotton was firmly positioned as the primary cash crop in the South, and Carver recognized that the best way to stoke demand for other crops, like peanuts and sweet potatoes, would be to promote new uses for them.
At the Tuskegee Institute, Carver cobbled together a laboratory from found objects and whatever was at hand. "I went to the trash pile at Tuskegee Institute and started my laboratory with bottles, old fruit jars and any other thing I found I could use," he later recalled [source: McMurry].
In the Tuskegee area, Carver collected different types of clays and extracted the pigments from them to produce several types of house paints [source: National Park Service]. At his experiment station, he also produced several different types of paper, a synthetic marble made of wood shavings, a type of road paving made from cotton, and an array of adhesives, greases, plastics, soaps and cosmetics [source: McMurry].
Even in his day, Carver recognized the limits of petroleum and the value of producing industrial products from renewable resources. "I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell," Carver is widely quoted as having said. "As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God's true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow" [source: African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center].