PRINCETON, Ky. — Farmers in the U.S. in general, and Kentucky in particular, have gotten really good at growing soybeans. Our state’s average yield exceeds the national average, and our quality is higher than that of many of our neighbors to the North, thanks to our longer growing season and fertile soils.
One of the biggest success stories in soybean marketing history is that of soy biodiesel. More than 30 years ago, farmers were growing soybeans for their protein-rich meal, which is a key ingredient in the dietary rations of poultry and livestock. The demand for soybean meal led to a surplus of soybean oil, which was at that time considered a byproduct of the soybean crush. Farmer-leaders on the United Soybean Board invested soy checkoff dollars into finding uses for this surplus oil.
Soy biodiesel was subsequently developed, and much of that oil quickly found a home in the tanks of over-the-road trucks, farm equipment, and other modes of transportation. It later found another niche as a safe home heating oil. Recent information from Clean Fuels America (formerly the National Biodiesel Board) indicates that farmers can attribute 13 percent of the selling price of their beans to the development of biodiesel.
Biodiesel opened the door for many scientists to see that renewable, sustainable soybean oil could be used in a number of industrial applications, bringing products such as tire tread, sneaker soles, asphalt sealants, concrete additives, and even asphalt roof rejuvenators to the marketplace in recent years.
Last year, Kentucky farmers grew more than 103 million bushels of soybeans, and the farmer-leaders who make up the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board have turned their attention to new uses for our versatile crop. The Board partnered with Dr. Jagannadh Satyavolu, Endowed Chair in Renewable Energy Research at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research in Louisville, to create the Soy Innovation Challenge.
Students submitted potentially commercializable soy-based product concepts to the Board last September, and selected concepts were awarded seed money to develop those ideas over the course of three months. Those proposals and prototypes were presented to the Board at its December meeting, and the farmer-leaders were impressed with the results. The winner of the inaugural Soy Innovation Challenge was a team headed up by Athira Nair Surendran, whose proposal centered around extracting activated carbon from soybean hulls (normally a low-value byproduct of the soybean crush) for use in a 3-D printed filament for use in supercapacitors (batteries).
The Board was invited to tour the Conn Center during its summer meeting, and the farmers were glad to see this concept being actively pursued. Ms. Surendran was one of the group’s tour guides, and she was certainly invested in the success of her team’s concept. The use of soy hulls in this scenario has the potential to turn what was once a low-value byproduct into a revenue stream for our crop, and the farmer-leaders who have been entrusted with investing the soy checkoff in Kentucky were happy to see this concept turned into a research proposal at the close of the Challenge.
Dr. Satyavolu is already hard at work on the second annual Soy Innovation Challenge. He has expanded the challenge to include students at Bellarmine University, Sullivan University, and Jefferson Community and Technical College, in addition to those who attend the University of Louisville. Student teams presented concepts for new uses or integrations of soy components to the Board on September 26, and seed money was awarded to six concepts that will be presented as proposals/prototypes at the December board meeting.
“This is where I think we need to be investing checkoff dollars,” said KSPB Vice-Chairman Barry Alexander, who farms near Cadiz and is one of three Kentucky farmers who represents our state on the United Soybean Board. “We have gotten really good at producing soybeans, and through our checkoff investments, we’ve developed markets for the oil. Now we need to get to work moving this growing pile of meal that we have. Meal, hulls, and other products of the crush can be used for a number of applications – we just have to invest the money to help scientists figure it out. This Soy Innovation Challenge is probably my favorite thing we have funded since I’ve been on the Soybean Board, because it is designed to grow demand for our crop.”
Kentucky Soybean Board Chairman Larry Thomas agreed. “Turning a byproduct into a profit center is exactly the kind of program we need to invest checkoff dollars into. Cool new uses are great, but new uses that can provide a significant return on investment to the soybean farmers that we represent will get my vote every time.”
Results of the 2022 Soy Innovation Challenge will be featured in the Spring issue of the Kentucky Soybean Sentinel.
— Kentucky Soybean Board