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Kitty Litter: Potential New Use for Spent Corn Grains

Posted by Sean Adams, Agricultural Research Service in Conservation Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
ARS scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller's grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.
ARS scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller's grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA's rich science and research portfolio.

Sometimes, the results of USDA science show up in the most unlikely places—maybe even in your cat’s litter box.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have discovered a way to make kitty litter that's nearly 100 percent biodegradable by processing spent grains left over from corn ethanol production.

And what’s good for you and your cat may also be good for the environment. ARS researcher Steven F. Vaughn and his colleagues have shown that litter made with these grains as the starting material may prove to be more environmentally friendly than popular but nonbiodegradable, clay-based litters that mostly end up in landfills.

The idea of using corn or other grains as the basis of an environmentally sound cat litter isn't new. But the ARS research team at the agency’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., may be the first to extensively study the potential of treated, spent grains called “x-DDGs” as the primary component of a litter, and to make their results publicly available.

DDGs are "dried distiller's grains." A DDGs-based litter may provide a new and perhaps higher-value market for the tons of DDGs that corn ethanol refineries now primarily market as an ingredient in cattle feed.

The “x-DDGs” tested by Vaughn’s group are DDGs that, after being used for ethanol production, are treated with one or more solvents to extract any remaining, potentially useful natural compounds.

The team's laboratory experiments yielded a suggested kitty litter formulation composed of the x-DDGs and three other compounds: glycerol, to prevent the litter from forming dust particles when poured or pawed; guar gum, to help the litter clump easily when wet; and a very small amount of copper sulfate, for odor control.

The resulting litter is highly absorbent, forms strong clumps that don't crumble when scooped from the litter box, and provides significant odor control, according to Vaughn, who did the work with ARS chemists Mark A. Berhow and Jill K. Winkler-Moser at Peoria, and Edward Lee of Summit Seed, Inc., in Manteno, Ill.

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Dec 17, 2013

Nice article.

It would be great if we can see the new litter in the marketplace.

Rona Needham
Dec 19, 2013

Sounds like a win win situation. Hope it can be realized.

Dec 19, 2013

We have been using corn-based kitty litter for years. As the article says, it clumps and works well and is environmentally-friendly, but our main reason for getting it is that we believe it is safer for our cats than clumping clay litter, which (anecdotally, as least) can harm cats by accumulating in their digestive tracks after they groom themselves.

It's a win-win for all concerned.

Dec 20, 2013

DDG has a value as an alternative feed source for livestock since the corn it is derived from is too expensive to be used as a supplemental feed. Yet another higher profile article to not consider the current use of the product.