Soybeans source of industrial resin, researcher finds University of Delaware engineer develops new uses for crop

October 22, 1998|By Andrea Ahles | Andrea Ahles,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

When Richard Wool looks at a soybean, he sees a natural resource that can be made into cars, farm machines and particleboard.

For 10 years, Wool, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Delaware, has researched the use of soybean oil to make affordable manufacturing materials.

Wool has developed a patented process that chemically modifies soybean oil so it can be made into a composite resin. Most commercial resins are made with petrochemicals.

"The soybean resin is basically a petrochemical resin look-alike, except it's from renewable resources and it's cheaper," Wool said.

Team of professors

Wool is part of a team of professors at the University of Delaware, known as ACRES (Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources). The group has examined 200 chemical pathways and from that has produced 12 soybean oil resins with varying characteristics. Some are biodegradable, others are more durable, and several are three to four times cheaper to produce than a petrochemical resin, Wool said.

Environmental friendliness and low production costs make the soybean resin an attractive alternative to petrochemical composite materials.

"There are opportunities here to solve some basic chemical problems and come up with new ways to do things so there are less hazardous materials in making a composite," said Tom Doyle, a consultant with OmniTech International Ltd.

Whether the resin can be mass-produced and maintain the same qualities is uncertain. Unlike crude oil, soybean oil has some seasonal "imprints" that are determined by where the plant was grown and what the weather was like while it was in the field.

With new advances in genetic engineering of soybeans, hybrids might provide the consistency manufacturers would need to use the soybean resin.

There is no aesthetic difference between a soybean resin composite and a petrochemical composite.

"I could not tell the difference when I was holding it in my hand, smelling it and tapping it," said Doyle, who works with the United Soybean Board. "For all intents and purposes it was the same thing" as a petrochemical composite.

The United Soybean Board has provided funding for the ACRES group and has helped move the technology from the laboratory to the farm field.

If researchers are able to overcome any problems that may arise, the USB will move rapidly to have product applications ready within five years, Doyle said.

Like many peer research institutions that develop new technologies, the University of Delaware formed a private company, Caraplastics, to market and manufacture the soybean resin that Wool developed.

Targeting plastics market

The company is targeting the competitive plastics market, since the petrochemical plastics might not be as environmentally friendly as particular types of the soybean resin, said chief operating officer Leann Mischel.

Caraplastics hopes to form a joint venture with a major chemical firm, because the company cannot produce the soybean resins on a scale large enough to meet demand, Mischel said.

"We've been getting ... so many inquiries that we need to wrap production very quickly," she said.

Mischel said that Caraplastics looks to penetrate the $1 billion plastics market and the $6 billion particleboard market with the soybean resins.

However, the only company that has made prototypes from the resins is John Deere.

In South Dakota this harvesting season, Deere is testing tractor fan shrouds made from the soy resins. If the shrouds hold up, Deere will determine whether they would be less costly than metal, company spokesman Al Higley said.

Contemporary Products, a privately held composite manufacturer in Milwaukee, Wis., built the shrouds for the field tests, and a seven-foot-tall soy-composite door that Deere is testing on one of its hay balers. The door is being tested in a laboratory, where it is opened and closed repeatedly, Higley said.

The possible marketing of a product made from soybeans to farmers who grow soybeans has Deere executives seeing green.

"If we can play some kind of role in developing an additional market for soybeans that can end up adding to the profitability structure for our customers, we're obviously interested in that," Higley said.

About 381,000 U.S. farmers in 29 states grow soybeans, harvesting almost 2.4 billion bushels in 1996.

Wool agrees that the marketing aspect of the soybean resin could benefit a company such as Deere.

"If any agricultural company can say to its customer, 'My implement is made from your soybeans,' that definitely has an emotional tug to it," said Wool.

Wool began research in renewable resources more than 10 years ago at the University of Illinois. He had concentrated on making plastics from cornstarch before switching to soybean oil, because of its greater availability.

Wool, however, is not the first person to use soybeans for composite materials.

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