The House That Soy Built

Associated Press + More


Brookings Register BROOKINGS, S.D.—Munjal Patel, polyol research manager at Volga-based Urethane Soy Systems, spends all day in a lab trying to develop soybean oil into polyurethane applications.

The company's research is making big strides, using soy-based polyols to create biorenewable products such as foam for insulation, packaging and cushioning, truck bed liners, and more.

Now Patel is taking his work home with him — literally.

The researcher and his wife, Vaishali, are building a new home in Brookings, and they want their contractors to use as many soy-based products as possible.

The couple's house will be lined with energy-efficient soy-based spray foam insulation. Underneath their carpeting will be padding made from Urethane Soy System's products. Patel is even working with a countertop manufacturer to make a product based on — you guessed it — soy materials.

"The countertops are a fairly new project. I'm going to work with our customer on that and see if we can have something in time for our home."

Patel, a five-year employee of Urethane Soy Systems, says the company converts soybean oil into a polyol, which is a chemical used in the polyurethane industry to make polyurethane plastic. Polyol has traditionally been made from petroleum-based oil. "With our technology, we can convert soybean oil into a polyol that could be used for any of those applications," he said.

Patel said USS researchers are working on a wide range of products because polyurethane is a versatile polymer. "It's a really good plastic, and you can make various applications from that," he said. "If you consider polyurethane itself, you can make coatings, paints, and a major use is foam, like the cushioning you sit on every day.

"Soy-based spray foam works the same way as standard polyurethane. At the end of the day it does give you an advantage, because now you are using soy-based material, and you know the amount of energy going in to grow the soybeans, crush the beans, make the oil and convert it into polyol, versus taking the crude oil out of the ground, convert it and make polyol. There's a good advantage there."

The research manager said he's excited to be using in his new home the products he helps create.

"Six years ago, I wouldn't have even thought about that," Patel said. "But since I started working for Urethane Soy Systems, the products we can make using soy-based material has really got me interested. I'm amazed at what we can do with all these different products. That why when my wife and I decided this January that we were going to build a home, we said, 'Let's used as much soy-based product as possible.'

"Because this is a new technology, not very many homeowners know that you can do this, and this gives me a great opportunity to prove the concept."

The Patels are also aiming to build an energy-efficient home. Besides spray foam insulation, the couple will install other efficient products, like doors, appliances and windows, and then plan to test the efficiency of the soy-based products and their home overall.

Urethane Soy Systems got its start in Illinois about 15 years ago. South Dakota Soybean Processors later purchased the majority stock of the company, and the operation moved to Volga.

General Manager Michael Fusco said for about 10 years, the company has been in a research and development mode, but in the past four months has learned more than all the previous time combined. "It's only been the past year that we actually move toward production, of several products that are really turning out to be top-notch products."

Fusco said soy-based polyol products are every bit as good as petroleum based products, and even better when you consider that they're more environmentally friendly. Some products, such as the spray-foam insulation, actually cost less than their competitors.

Like the Patels, he wants more people to learn about and start using more products that got their start in the fields of South Dakota farmers.

"We're just the best kept secret in all of South Dakota," Fusco said.