If you think soybeans are just for livestock feed and tofu, think again. More than 3 billion bushels are produced in the U.S. each year. Increasingly soybean oil is being used in manufacturing and industry as a renewable replacement for petroleum.
Soybeans are an ingredient in everything from glue to cleaning supplies to even furniture filling.
“Even Henry Ford in the 1930s had built cars using soy oil paint,” said William Schapaugh, an agronomy professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “They were using soy oil in the shock absorbers of the cars. So that goes back a long time.”
He said that although people have been using soy in industry for a century now, in the last decade, interest has really picked up. In 2001, just over 3 percent of soybean oil went to inedible uses; by 2011, that number was up to 20 percent.
All parts of the soybean can be used in industry, but companies most commonly use the oil.
“Most times, if you have a product that you use petroleum-based oil in, with some modification, you can use soybean oil and replace some of that petroleum-based oil,” said Bob Haselwood, a farmer who serves on the United Soybean Board and the Kansas Soybean Commission.
Haselwood said soybeans have an advantage over petroleum because they're local and renewable.
“A lot of manufacturers are looking for a more green solution to their products, and soybeans kind of help them fit that niche,” he said.
To develop these bio-based products, some companies rely on researchers, like those at the Kansas Polymer Research Center. The center in Pittsburg, Kan., develops and tests polyurethanes and plastics made from soy oil. It gets funding from the government, the United Soybean Board, and private companies like Cargill.
“Our orientation was to develop something that can be used by big industry and put on the market,” said Ivan Javni, the center’s research manager.
And they've been successful. The evidence is all around the building — like a sofa with filling made from 30 percent soybean oil.
While basically anything that's made out of petroleum can be made out of soybeans, the trick is doing it as well and as cheaply. That's why the sofa's not made entirely of soy.
“That is our goal, of course, our dream,” Javni said. “But that is research work that is in progress, and it will take time.”
Ron Madl, grain science professor at Kansas State, said the issue is economic, as well as technological.
“The plastics markets in particular are heavily oriented towards petroleum-based products. You have a market that's already established; in many cases the infrastructure supports the petroleum product. So when the petroleum industry has its own subsidies to keep its own prices down, that makes it very difficult for soy to enter these markets,” he said.
But to Madl, the potential is clearly there. For one thing, the majority of industrial uses today rely on soybean oil. But as he sees it, manufacturing presents a great opportunity to use all parts of the soybean.
“The area that's not being exploited so far is the carbohydrate fractions, and if we can determine ways of making those into something akin to plastics I think that's a huge area that hasn't been exploited yet,” Madl said.
If the researchers are correct — and market conditions are right — the future of soybeans may be in factories and fuel as much as food and feed.