Chemurgy is a branch of applied chemistry that is concerned with preparing industrial products from agricultural raw materials. The word "chemurgy" was coined by chemist William J. Hale and first publicized in his 1934 book The Farm Chemurgic. But the concept was mildly well-developed by the early years of the 20th century. For example, a number of products, including brushes and motion picture film, were made from cellulose. Beginning in the 1920s, some prominent Americans began to advocate a more widespread link between farmers and industry. Among them were William J. Hale and agricultural journalist Wheeler McMillen. Automaker Henry Ford began to test farm crops for their industrial potential around 1930, and soon settled on the soybean as particularly promising. The Ford Motor Company used soybeans in such parts as gearshift knobs and horn buttons.
In 1935, the Farm Chemurgic Council (later renamed the National Farm Chemurgic Council) was formed to encourage greater use of renewable raw materials in industry. In its early years, the Council received substantial publicity. It was perceived by the Roosevelt Administration as a political threat, since Council leaders questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture policies. First placing much of its emphasis on demonstrating the benefits of Agrol (a line of blended motor fuels that included ethanol), the Council drew strong opposition from the petroleum industry. The Agrol pilot plant, which also experienced management and financial difficulties, shut down in 1938. Wheeler McMillen, who had become president of the Council the previous year, decided to distance the chemurgy movement from ethanol, mend fences with the petroleum industry, and place the Council on a more cautious course.
The Council’s cause received an unexpected boost when Theodore G. Bilbo, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, sought a means to promote new uses for his region’s surplus cotton. To make his goal more politically attractive, he supported a broader research program. In the end, four regional U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories, dedicated to finding new uses for farm crops, were authorized under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. The labs were established in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, New Orleans, Louisiana, Peoria, Illinois, and Albany, California. Over time, their research agendas expanded, and they became less focused on chemurgy. Nevertheless, their involvement in that field was symbolic of the chemurgy movement’s transformation from a cause associated with Roosevelt Administration critics to one with clear support from that administration.
Chemurgy demonstrated its worth during World War II, particularly in alleviating the rubber shortage caused when Japan cut off most of America's supply. Corn was used as raw material in much of the synthetic rubber produced during the war. Various other plants, including guayule and kok-saghyz (Russian dandelion), were investigated as rubber sources. In the American Midwest, school children were encouraged to gather milkweed floss, previously considered a nuisance but now valued for a new role as a filler in military life jackets. A priest in Iowa even made news by urging congregants to grow hemp, whose previous reputation as a drug hazard yielded to military requirements for rope and cordage.
Prospects for chemurgy appeared promising into the 1950s. An article in the December 3, 1951 issue of Newsweek, for example, said "“the flood of chemurgy seems to be swelling.”" But as uses of agricultural raw materials advanced, so did uses for petrochemicals, and non-renewable materials eventually won out it in a number of markets. For example, petrochemical detergents were widely used in place of agriculturally derived soaps, and petrochemical plastic wrapping material largely replaced cellophane. The Chemurgic Council went through a period of decline and finally closed its doors in 1977.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in chemurgy, although the word itself has largely fallen out of usage. In 1990, Wheeler McMillen, then 97 years old, addressed a national conference of latter-day chemurgic enthusiasts in Washington, DC. The conference served to launch the New Uses Council, which seeks to further the cause formerly promoted by the Chemurgic Council.