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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Researchers Seeking Alternative Uses for Soybeans

March 13, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - There may be more uses for soybean oil than just as a food product.

Ohio State University soybean breeders are collaborating with researchers and industry representatives on a multi-university project to develop bio-based industrial materials using soybean oil rather than petroleum as the base product. Researchers from Purdue University, University of Missouri and Iowa State University are also involved.

"There is some effort in the industry right now to find alternative uses for vegetable oils. Oils like palm oil and soybean oil are kind of a glut on the food market, so the pressure is on to find some other uses for these products," said Steve St. Martin, an Ohio State soybean breeder. "The rationale behind the project is that with soybean prices being relatively cheap and petroleum prices being high, it may be beneficial to the farmers and the industry if we can find useful vegetable products that are also economically attractive." The regional project is being funded through a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems (IFAFS) grant. Some products that will be tested using soybean oil include airplane deicers, polyurethane foams (found in such products as furniture, bedding, packaging, clothing and automotive) and heating fuel. Developing such products using petroleum can be expensive and exhibit undesirable environmental properties. Airplane deicers, for example, are toxic to mammals and, if they enter water sources as runoff, can kill aquatic organisms because they deplete the oxygen as they biodegrade.

St. Martin's role in the project, along with Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center soybean breeder Ron Fioritto, is to provide research engineers soybean varieties that exhibit genetic characteristics applicable to developing industrial products. In addition, the varieties must also produce high yields, adapt to Ohio soil conditions and exhibit disease resistance so as to be beneficial to growers.

Along with finding varieties that produce high yields and quality field characteristics, researchers are also measuring the amount of oil that can be extracted from a seed using a process known as extrusion.

"Oil is generally produced by extraction, where most of the oil is obtained by grinding and heating the soybean seed, using a solvent to dissolve the soybean oil away and then refining the solvent to get the pure oil," said St. Martin. "Extrusion is a process of squeezing the oil out, much like how a cider or olive oil press functions. No one has ever used this technique with some of these new types of soybeans that have these different oil properties." So far, the researchers have sent four soybean varieties to Purdue to be tested, and the list continues to grow.

"We've shipped off a standard variety, two with high protein contents and one with a low linolenic acid content," said St. Martin. Soybean oils high in protein and low in linolenic acid have potential use in the food industry because of the health benefits and overall food preservation.

"If these varieties are found to be beneficial in developing industrial products, then they may be of more value," said St. Martin. "Soybean growers would have some advantage in growing the crop because the varieties have a special characteristic that would fetch a premium and have a market developed for it." The Ohio State soybean breeding labs house several hundred soybean varieties that will be targeted for the project. "This is the business that we are in. It's what we are here for, to find a product that is useful," said St. Martin. "We are perfectly willing to fail nine times out of 10 if the 10th one is really good."

Candace Pollock
Steve St. Martin