When there are really tough jobs to do, we turn to ropes of steel. Cables - wire ropes - are called on when tugboats pull ships to sea, draglines dig foundation sites and cranes lift huge girders into place on skyscrapers.

A new wire-rope lubricant made from soybean oil soon will find its first commercial application in the Port of Seattle, WA.

It will be supplied by International Lubricants, a Seattle company that developed it under contract with the United Soybean Board. The market possibilities for the oil could require 200,000-400,000 bu of soybeans a year.

The lubricant more than just replaces petroleum.

"It penetrates better than grease and sticks tighter than mineral oil," says Blaine Rhodes, director of research and development for International Lubricants.

Wire rope is usually made of braided steel. Used extensively in mining, lumber production, construction and marine shipping, it's often exposed to dirt, salt and water. To protect the steel from rust as it hangs into water, and to reduce internal friction and heat generated as it turns and strains over pulleys, it must be lubricated.

Historically, any lubricant would do, even used motor oil.

Whatever is used, "The lubricant literally falls off," states Rhodes. "It is totally lost into the environment."

The research mission was to develop a non-toxic, biodegradable and environmentally friendly lubricant.

A replacement oil made with rapeseed is used in Europe. But soybean oil, being less expensive and more readily available, seemed a better choice for the U.S., says Rhodes. In addition, with so much research already done on soybean oil, it seemed like something that could be done without much additional research investment.

"We had to stabilize the chemical structure so it didn't air dry and become sticky, but it had to penetrate into cables," he explains.

The new lubricant can be formulated so it brushes or paints on like grease or sprays on like oil. Because it coats so effectively, less is needed. Rhodes says it will be cheaper to use even though it costs more per pound.

The U.S. government pays millions each year to clean up oily residues in ports around the world where the Navy is present. This new lubricant could reduce thosecosts.

"When it falls into water, it disintegrates fast," says Rhodes. "It leaves no slick. You can't see a rainbow on the water."

He adds, "Soybean growers can help their own cause. They need to talk it up and let people know this lubricant exists."