Soy What You Will, This Bean's Big Business

Soy What You Will, This Bean's Big Business

Any industry that makes extensive use of petroleum or petroleum-based products could profitably consider what many farmers say is a more environmentally friendly alternative: soy. According to the United Soybean Board, a farmer-driven organization investing in more than 350 marketing and research projects annually, the bean succeeds in plastics, coatings and inks, lubricants, adhesives, and solvents. The USB says it wants to develop eight new industrial uses for the bean and increase its domestic use from 1.2 billion bushels to more than 1.75 billion bushels by 2005.

The U.S. Commerce Department reports that nearly 4% of soybean oil is used for non-food products. Have the farmers bitten off more than they can chew, or are manufacturers hungry for more?'s Kelley Kreitz asked Jim Martin, a consultant for the United Soybean Board, to put industrial soy into a sustainable business perspective...

Kelley Kreitz: Are biodegradable soy-based products economically feasible?

Jim Martin:
People tend to confuse "biodegradable" with "biobased." The answer is that there are many soy-based industrial products that are economically feasible, and more are being developed. Some will be biodegradable and some won't. You don't want the backing on your carpet or the bumper on your car to biodegrade rapidly and soy products for those types of uses will be designed to resist biodegradation. On the other hand, you might want the solvent in a paint stripper or a two-cycle engine oil to break down more rapidly in the environment than petroleum products. Soy products can do that.

As raw materials, soy oil and soy protein are readily available in large volumes and are fairly stable in price -- less volatile in price than petroleum. When you get to a finished product, sometimes a soy product will be less expensive and sometimes it will be more expensive per pound or per unit. What we look at is the total system cost. Can a purchaser use a soy product for less because it requires less to do the job, it takes less energy in processing, it costs less for disposal or it reduces the cost of regulatory compliance? When you weigh all of the cost factors, soy products are often more economical to use even when they cost more per unit to buy. We look at all of those factors when we research a product area, not just the raw material cost. If the economics don't look good we move on to something else.

KK: Why do you say soy-based products are environmentally preferable?

From a regulatory standpoint, the environmental benefits of soy change with every product. Soy products are almost always low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which is important in many markets but maybe most critical for solvents, paints and coatings. They are low in toxicity and produce no Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), which may be important in a market like metal working fluids or adhesives. You have to design soy products to meet the environmental and regulatory problems of the industry you hope to serve.

Soy really shines when you step back from just meeting environmental regulations and look at the total life cycle picture. For instance, it takes less energy and produces fewer harmful air and water emissions to grow, harvest, transport and process soy into oil and meal, than it takes to pump crude oil out of the ground and transport it to the refinery. You start out with a positive captive energy balance before you even use the product. Add to that the product is renewable and that the growing plant sequesters carbon dioxide and you have a positive picture related global warming.

KK: Looking to the United Soybean Board's 2005 goal for new industrial uses of soy, what have you got in development?

Plastics, lubricants, metalworking fluids, paints and coatings, wood adhesives, and solvents.
  • In plastics, soy polyols are already being used to make polyurethane for applications like carpet backing, truck bed liners and flexible foams for automotive applications. There are hundreds of other polyurethane applications that are all possible. There are also soy-based thermoset resins being used to make fiberglass-reinforced parts for heavy equipment.

  • There are quite a few total-loss lubricants already in the market from two-cycle engine oil to rail and flange lubes. Our development effort is focused on improving the oxidative stability of soybean oil for high temperature uses like crankcase oils. The technology looks very promising.

  • There are good soy-based metalworking fluids already being marketed for a variety of uses from extreme pressure material for fine blanking to emulsifiable formulas for cooling applications. There are also hydraulic fluid formulas with limited use but as with crankcase oils we need a more stable basestock.

  • In paints and coatings, there is a waterborne architectural paint already in market trial, but we have some additional resin technology that we would like to find commercial partners to evaluate. The same is true for metal coatings. We also have very promising technology for UV curing.

  • In wood adhesives we are completing testing of a new soy foamed plywood system. We also are working on soy materials to partially substitute for phenol in a lower cost system to make interior-/exterior-oriented strandboard, particleboard and plywood production.

  • In solvents it seems like some new formulated product comes along every week. Paint strippers and parts cleaners are big areas.
KK: Which of these do you predict will play a major role in the U.S. soybean market?

All of the market segments we are looking at have tremendous potential for soy utilization. The plastics area has the largest identified potential but that is made up of quite a few sub segments and literally hundreds of different applications. Over the long term there will lots of different products that will collectively add up to a tremendous amount of utilization. In the short term, biodiesel sales increased more than ten-fold in 2001 and when new regulations lower the sulfur content of diesel fuel, we should see a big surge in soy use as an additive for diesel fuel. Other products will be adopted as new technology and economics drive them.

KK: Obviously, soy farmers would like to see their product take off in manufacturing. What's your take on demand?

If you look back just five years, uses other than food and feed have almost doubled for soybeans. Industrial uses are still a small percent of total consumption, but growing rapidly and represent a diversified market of value added products that can provide reduced economic risk for our farmers. I would not be surprised to see industrial use of soy continue to grow rapidly. That growth will be made possible by a variety of new technologies.

Genetics will play a part. We will have new soy varieties with oil and protein characteristics that make it easier to process them into industrial products. That will have to be combined with new chemical modification, fractionation and separation technologies. It is a complex industry with one new development driving or feeding off of others.

[Editor's note: The United Soybean Board has more detailed information on soy-based industrial products and suppliers. Also check out's two-minute essential briefings on bio-based products and biodiversity.]


By Kelley Kreitz, a staff researcher and writer. Copyright 2002, Green Business Network, all rights reserved.