What's new with soy? It has moved into the driver's seat — literally. Beginning in August 2007, Ford Mustangs rolled off the production line containing seat backs and seat cushions made with soy.

While other auto manufacturers have experimented with using smaller portions of soy-based material in foam applications, Ford is the first to replace a portion of its petroleum-based seat cushions with soy-based materials. Significant funding efforts from Ford and the United Soybean Board (USB) and soybean checkoff helped make this innovative soy-based technology a reality.

The flexible seat foam is made with 10% soy-based polyol that yields 5% foam in each seat without compromising factors such as foam durability, stiffness or performance. But the big benefit with this biobased product is to the environment.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), soy polyols have only one-quarter the level of total environmental impact of petroleum-based ingredients.

Likewise, the switch to soy polyurethane is estimated to save millions in annual costs for Ford because of its reduced dependence on petroleum-based polyol foam. On average, each car contains 30 lbs. of petroleum-based foam, and with petroleum prices skyrocketing, that becomes a hefty expense.

Thus, with the breakthrough in soy-based foam for automotive seats, there is enormous untapped potential ahead for soybeans.

Todd Allen, USB New Uses Committee chair and a soybean farmer from West Memphis, AR, is optimistic and says, “The move by Ford to replace petroleum in auto interiors with soybean oil is revolutionary. Such a move may not only be the start of something big for soybean farmers, but also for America as a whole.”

Looking ahead, Ford and its research partners Urethane Soy Systems Company (USSC), Lear Corporation and others are ramping up soy foam contents from the current 5% to over 40% in automobile seating. In January, Ford made an additional move regarding soy foam by expanding it to F-150 pickup trucks, Lincoln Navigators and Escape SUVs. There's industry talk that other automotive companies will be adopting this technology.

Matthew Zaluzec, manager — Ford Materials and Nanotechnology Department, anticipates a great future. He says, “As we move forward to develop a portfolio of sustainable materials that will go into future Ford vehicles, soy-based polyurethane seats are a great first step and one of many environmental initiatives. Working together with USB and our key suppliers, Ford Motor Company's materials research efforts will continue to drive biobased and renewable materials into our vehicles as part of our ongoing environmental stewardship.”

FUEL-CELL FORESIGHT

Also on the technology horizon is the prospect of using soybean oil as a replacement for petroleum in environmentally friendly fuel cells. These cells can be used to power entire households or barns, and some specialty cells are being developed for rechargeable batteries in portable electronics, such as laptops and cell phones. Ohio and Nebraska's state soybean associations are leading research efforts with this energy technology for the next generation.

Jennifer Coleman with the Ohio Soybean Council reports that Technology Management, Inc. (TMI), a Cleveland-based company, has developed the fuel-cell technology designed to provide energy to remote and rural environments, including farms. TMI has developed a working solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) model powered by soy oil, and research into making it commercially available will continue in 2008.

Fuel-cell systems like those being developed by TMI offer advantages over other renewable systems and traditional generators. While engines are based on a combustion process and produce carbon dioxide, fuel cells are based on a chemical process making them cleaner, quieter and able to operate indoors. And unlike solar and wind power, fuel cells can run continuously.

“This technology would help to improve the overall economics of the farm because of decreased energy costs and usage of fossil fuels,” says Mike Petrik, TMI vice president and general manager. “The fuel-cell system would not only create electricity, but could be used to heat a home or barn. Instead of taking fuel to the energy producer, we are taking the energy producer to the farm.”

Other soybean checkoff-funded research efforts are pursuing the potential for biobased batteries containing soy oil and have shown several advantages over traditional batteries, including instant recharging by simply adding more fuel, as well as longer intervals between charges. Replacing petroleum with soybean oil also removes the metals in batteries that can be toxic to people and the environment.

A NEW ENERGY FUTURE

In the decade ahead, bold initiatives for energy from renewable sources like soy biodiesel are being put in place, which are expected to greatly increase demand for biobased products. One such initiative is the 25 by '25 effort; it calls for 25% of the nation's energy supply from renewable sources by 2025.

The U.S. Senate has adopted a resolution supporting this national renewable energy goal. Of the focus on renewable energy sources, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has said, “Energy security is tied to national security and also means income and economic opportunity for agriculture and rural America. If we are to attain national energy and economic security for our nation, we must reach these aggressive but achievable energy goals.”

Minnesota is among the leaders in achieving this effort. It was the first state in the nation to require a 2% biodiesel blend in 2005. Now, Minnesotans have their sights set on boosting the level of biodiesel sold in the state from 2% to 20% by 2015. Governor Tim Pawlenty plans to bring this “B2 to B20” plan to the legislature during the regular 2008 legislative session.

Of the initiative, Pawlenty says, “Minnesota has led the nation in unleashing a renewable energy revolution. It's time for us to continue to blaze the trail to a cleaner, more secure energy future.”

Also of interest, in southern Minnesota, B100 — pure biodiesel — is being used to power generators for wind turbines when wind speeds are low. This allows for constant electric power to be generated and is one more new market for soy biodiesel in the renewable energy realm.

SUPPORT FOR BIOBASED PRODUCTS

The majority of Americans are interested in learning more about biobased products, according to a recent study sponsored by the soybean checkoff and United Soybean Board (USB). The national study, conducted by NuStats, surveyed 1,370 people and found that:

  • 88% of respondents support the federal government's involvement in educating consumers about availability and attributes of biobased products.

  • The majority of consumers (88%) favor Congress' increase of funding to the USDA to support promotion, education and research of biobased products.

  • Consumers largely support the federal government becoming a prominent and visible purchaser of biobased products.

  • More education to the public about biobased products is still needed, however, as three-quarters of those polled reported being unfamiliar with biobased products. But, 81% of those surveyed with modest knowledge expressed interest in learning even more about green technology.

“This research affirms that Americans see the value of biobased products, which can be made from U.S. soybeans, to offer energy security, environmental, worker health and other benefits,” says Chuck Myers, USB vice chairman and a Nebraska soybean farmer. But he adds that the study shows how consumer education and product promotion make an enormous difference in whether people will buy biobased products.