Virent shirts

With Virent's technology, Minnesota sugar beets were converted into the main chemical used to make the polyester used in these T-shirts. Virent, a Madison biofuels development company, is being purchased by Tesoro, a Texas independent oil refiner.

Would you wear a shirt made from beet sugar?

Virent is showing off what it calls “the world’s first 100 percent plant-based polyester shirts,” made from a chemical produced by the Madison biofuels company that’s derived from Minnesota sugar beets.

A key ingredient in polyester — one of the world’s most popular synthetic fibers — is paraxylene, and it’s been made exclusively from crude oil.

Virent’s BioFormPX paraxylene has no petroleum in it; it is derived solely from plants.

Taiwanese manufacturer Far Eastern New Century has transformed Virent’s plant-based paraxylene into bio-polyester and manufactured about a dozen green T-shirts with Virent’s name and logo for demonstration purposes.

“The fabric and shirts produced from plant-based polyester are identical in all aspects to petroleum polyester, with the important exception that they have a much lower carbon footprint,” Virent CEO Lee Edwards said in a statement.

Virent also makes gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, and its paraxylene can be used to make plastics, such as recyclable plastic bottles.

The company, at 3571 Anderson St., has 37 employees. It was founded in 2002 based on UW-Madison research and has forged partnerships with several major companies including Cargill, Shell, Coca-Cola and Honda.

As for the bio-polyester, Virent is looking to collaborate with apparel companies, spokeswoman Shelly Norris said.

“We are actively working with various partners on scale-up and commercial plans, but have not publicly announced any specific timelines for doing so,” Norris said. “Syndicating a large-scale commercial plant is the next milestone for the project.”

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.