The market for urethane is immense. And thanks to a rural Illinois business, soybean oil could soon become the main ingredient in this popular material.

Urethane is used in chairs, sofas, car and truck interiors, carpet backing, shoes, insulation, water heaters and a host of other things.

Ultra Foam, Inc., owned by the Kurth family - Tom Sr., Tom Jr., Ed, Bruce, John and Richard - manufactures arm rests and other car and truck interior parts from urethane. The Kurths have a modest-sized plant at Dover, IL. As with nearly all urethane products, theirs have been petroleum-based. But that's changing.

"We've found that soybean oil can replace 100% of the petroleum polyols in the manufacture of urethane," reports Tom Kurth Jr.

Why use soybean oil?

"It's less expensive than the petroleum-based chemicals and produces better-quality urethane," Kurth replies. "We estimate that urethane manufacturers will be able to buy a soybean oil product about 20% cheaper than the conventional polyols now in common use."

The Kurths have patented their procedure for converting raw soybean oil into a product to be used in urethane production. The product is trademarked SoyOyl, and they have formed a separate corporation, Urethane Soy Systems Co. (USSC) to produce and market it.

"The potential for SoyOyl is tremendous, both domestically and worldwide," Kurth declares. It could take millions of soybean acres to satisfy the U.S. market alone.

Because it's a small, family-owned business with limited capital, USSC has applied to the United Soybean Board (USB) and the Illinois Soybean Board for funding. The amount of funding available will determine how fast SoyOyl is produced in sizable volume.

Walter Rupprecht of Omni Tech International, Midland, MI, who is evaluating the USSC application to USB, calls SoyOyl a very promising alternative to petroleum materials.

"It can make urethane products more 'green,' " he says. "Prospective users of SoyOyl seem to be quite interested in this new technology."

Eventually, urethane products made from SoyOyl could compete with wood and plastic products, Kurth points out.

"Until now, urethane was more expensive than either lumber or plastic," he explains. "But with SoyOyl as its basic ingredient, that would no longer be the case. And that could make the demand for soybeans really explode."

Kurth points out that SoyOyl will be manufactured in rural areas close to soybean processing plants that can supply the raw oil.