Magic Beans for Building

Automotive construction: Soybeans are on the ingredient list for tractors. Are cars next?

by Illustration: Brett Ryder
Urethane Soy Systems Company is determined to use soy in everything from cars to carpets, all through the magic of polyurethane.Illustration: Brett Ryder

If you think soy is good for nothing but tofu burgers, think again. The Princeton, Illinois-based Urethane Soy Systems Company (USSC) is determined to use soy in everything from cars to carpets, all through the magic of polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a plastic made from two components, an isocyanate and a polyol. Traditionally, polyols are derived from petroleum, but USSC has developed one using beans: Soyoyl. Its advantages could be far-reaching. Soybeans are, of course, renewable and more environmentally friendly than petroleum, and using Soyoyl in polyurethane would reduce America's dependency on imported oil. John Deere, the world's leading producer of farm equipment, has begun using Soyoyl to make panels for its combines. "It's nice for our customers who harvest soybeans to know that we're using those beans in the combines they're working with," says John Deere spokesman Barry Nelson. "And if the technology works well, we can help encourage its use in the automobile industry, where you have a lot more volume. The potential is unlimited."

Jim Jackson, director of business development at USSC, couldn't agree more. "You're probably sitting on a polyurethane seat right now," he says. "A good portion of the interior of your car and some of the exterior is polyurethane." If, as USSC claims, its product costs the same, or less, as petroleum-based polyols, the company's future could be very bright indeed.