Soy crackers. Soy puddings. Soy markers. Soybean oil-based industrial lubricants. Soy ski wax. Where do these product ideas come from?
It turns out college students across the country develop many of these concepts. Both the Nebraska and Indiana Soybean Boards are among states that currently sponsor annual student competitions to challenge young people to develop creative new uses for soybeans.
In both states, the contests are run as extra-curricular projects that students voluntarily work on in teams or individually. In Nebraska, the annual competition is open to students at all state colleges and universities. In Indiana, students must attend Purdue University. Prize money is typically awarded to the top two or three new or improved soy-based products.
The contests have yielded some of the soybean industry's most innovative products. “Students at this age are pretty inventive,” says Bernard Tao, an associate professor of ag engineering and food science at Purdue. Tao oversees the Indiana competition.
He points out that the contest is a valuable learning experience because it goes beyond just having a good idea. “Students learn how invention and development of a project works — that includes the creative process, laboratory testing, actual production and packaging as well as marketing. It's a whole string of experiences that are extremely useful to them, especially when they move into the job market,” Tao says.
Because of the in-depth research that students put into their soy creations, many of the ideas developed have stimulated interest from commercial industry. That, in turn, has helped increase demand for soybeans.
Soy crayons, soy candles and Nu-Soy Gel, a protein-based gelatin, are past contest winners developed by Purdue students. All three are now being commercially produced.
In Nebraska, this year's student winner, Sandun Fernando, created an improved soybean oil-based industrial lubricant. The lubricant doesn't solidify at high temperatures like many of the commercially available soybean oil-based lubricants on the market today.
Fernando is a biological systems engineering doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He was awarded $3,500 for his first-place product and is pursuing a patent of his invention through the university.
His chemically modified lubricant resists the destructive chemical process called oxidative polymerization, which causes oil to solidify. His product was tested against commercially available soybean-based lubricants. When exposed to high temperature treatments of 185° for 14 days, results showed Fernando's improved product was more stable than commercially available drip oils.
Therefore, his product should help expand the use of soybean oil-based lubricants in high-temperature industrial applications. Those include pumps in irrigation wells that provide water for center-pivot and gravity irrigation, says Loren Isom, technical assistance coordinator for the Industrial Agricultural Products Center with the University of Nebraska.
Fernando reports that he's currently working on a soybean oil lubricant for jet engines.
Other students have experienced similar successes, but on a smaller scale. “We've had students develop ski wax, crackers, breakfast cereals and fire starters with soy products and these are being sold in smaller markets,” says Purdue's Tao. The most recent winning product at Purdue was soy marking pens, which look promising for future marketing opportunities.
University of Nebraska graduate student Lisa Durso came up with that state's 2001 winner, Eco-Auto, an environmentally sound, soy-based car-care product. It brings out the natural color in vehicles' plastic, vinyl and rubber surfaces.
Durso says she's had this idea for years. “I like the idea of a well-maintained vehicle, but I am also reluctant to buy products that may be harmful to the environment or my health,” she says.
Durso's product isn't commercially available, but she is exploring production and marketing possibilities.
UNL student entrepreneurs Kelly Kinnison and Ginger Ivy Jo Wingate have taken Soy Smaks, a soybean-oil lip balm the two created in 2000, to the marketplace. They produce small batches of the balm on their own and have developed marketing outlets.
Whether these student-developed soy products help create markets for 1,000 bu or for 1 million bushels of soybeans, the contests themselves have shown just how adaptable the soybean is, say those involved.
“Our primary objective is to develop new uses or improvements to soy-based products. But through this annual contest, our students and the people of Nebraska have become much more knowledgeable of the versatility of soybeans,” says Isom.
Long term, that may be the biggest benefit for the soybean industry.
“Students go on to champion the cause of soybeans and recognize the unique possibilities for soybean utilization as the real product,” adds Tao. “Some day when we run out of petroleum, they're the ones who have to go out into the world and make it a better place. And through this experience of creating products out of a raw component like soybeans, they have the foundation to do that.”