Turn Soy Oil Into Industrial-Grade Plastic?

Turn Soy Oil Into Industrial-Grade Plastic?

Turning soy oil into industrial grade plastic? Call it food for thought, says University of Delaware chemical engineering professor Richard P. Wool, who discussed his research during a recent presentation at the Royal Academy in Dublin, Ireland.

Wool is director of the Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources (ACRES) program in the Center for Composite Materials at UD. The interdisciplinary research group is interested in promoting the widespread use of composite materials made from renewable resources such as soybeans.

Soy is an ideal raw material, Wool said, because it is renewable, abundant, potentially biodegradable and open to the tools of genetic engineering. He called it a "green composite."

ACRES has used it to manufacture large doors for John Deere farm machinery and Wool said an entire tractor, including the tires, could be built from soy-based composite materials.

There is an "enormous potential" in biotechnology-based markets, Wool said, citing agriculture equipment, automotive and trucking and building construction.

The latter "could be the most explosive," he said, because wood substitutes can be molded to any variety of shapes. In traditional wood-based construction, design depends primarily on the straight beam and the flat sheet of wood.

Soy-based composites have no grain and better physical properties, Wool said.

Other potential markets include furniture and pressure sensitive adhesives – those ubiquitous "stickie" notes – and the military, which is interested in the potential of self-healing properties for use in tank armor.

The manufacture of soy-based plastics is the bio-based equivalent of what is done with petroleum, Wool said. Soy can be genetically engineered to provide specific properties, grown in the field and taken to natural oil refineries to be processed.

With soy readily available throughout the world, there are "significant business opportunities," Wool told the Royal Academy. "The price of petroleum is up and the price of natural oils is down. That is the right kind of tension to drive the business forward."

Plus, bio-based composites can be made to be biodegradable. For instance, Wool has worked with agriculture officials in China to develop a plastic for fields that will discourage weeds and pests, enhance crop yield and disappear after four months.

Wool told the members that while the research is new, it stems from ideas that date back decades. Among Wool’s visual materials is a 1938 photograph of automobile manufacturing giant Henry Ford taking an axe to a fiberglass car body made from soy.

Ford hoped to shift from steel to a lighter material in the fabrication of automobile bodies, Wool said, because "the most environmentally friendly thing you can do for a car that burns gasoline is to make lighter bodies."

Ford’s plans were waylaid by World War II, Wool said, when the industrialist focused his energies on the mass production of military vehicles and airplanes. Also during that period, petroleum plastic materials came of age.