How do innovative ideas for new soybean uses move into the research phase and eventually become reality? That process is guided by the United Soybean Board's New Uses Committee, made up of 10 farmer-leaders from across the country.
The committee works with a $3 million budget and annually reviews research bids from universities and private companies seeking soybean checkoff funding and support for projects that would develop new uses with soybeans.
From those proposals, “we look for opportunities and constraints in the marketplace, as well as make sure the science proposed is sound,” says Nortonville, KS, soybean farmer Eric Niemann. Niemann has chaired the New Uses Committee for the past two years.
He says new-use research for soy products focuses on five market areas that presently use primarily petroleum products.
The segments include plastics, coatings and inks, lubricants, adhesives and specialty products such as solvents, beauty products and other fluids.
“Our goal is to identify and develop two or three new soy-based products in each of those five market areas each year that all together will move 5-10 million bushels of soybeans within five years of their launch in the market,” Niemann says.
In addition to considering potential market size of a new product, Niemann says the committee also analyzes the costs and benefits of a newly proposed commodity. “We have to see a benefit from the product — either in cost of the soy oil vs. petroleum, or a worker safety or environmental benefit. We want to create products that will make less of a footprint in the environment,” he says.
But quality is kept in mind as well, he adds. “We also want to make sure new soy-based products are viable and will perform as good or better in the marketplace.”
To assist in evaluating each of these proposed research projects, the New Uses Committee contracts with OmniTech, a Michigan-based company that provides industry expertise on what types of soy-based products may have potential and meet specific needs in the market.
Niemann adds that there is one final element important to soybean checkoff-funded research.
“When we support research, we almost always require that an industry partner be included,” he says. “This way we can take that research and apply it directly to an actual product.”
SEEING IT HAPPEN
In his five years on the United Soybean Board, Niemann reports that it's been inspiring to see many of the new-use research products become reality and gain acceptance in their respective industries.
He mentions SoyOyl, now being used in carpet backing and soy-based foam insulations being used in everything from spray-on truck liners to padding for office chairs. Soy plastics are also being utilized — for panels and components of John Deere and Case-IH tractors and prototypes of Ford automobiles.
“It's exciting to work with innovative companies like these that are looking to the future and seeking homegrown resources like soybeans,” Niemann says.