Farmer-Funded R&D Lab Successfully Develops New Uses for Soybeans, Soy Oil

May 12, 2023

By Tom Steever

Dylan Karis is the lead chemist at Airable Research Lab, where they’re finding biobased solutions for consumers and industrial chemical companies, in some instances looking to replace existing petroleum products or to add a new product. Photo Credit: Barry McGraw

Dylan Karis has problems at work. They’re not the kind he grumbles about to his closest friends, though. In fact, problems are his job at Airable Research Laboratory, and ARL’s solutions result in more soybean oil-based products on the market.

“We work on a variety of different challenges, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific type of problem we try to solve,” said Karis, lead chemist at ARL, located in Delaware, Ohio, who went on to explain an example.

“Say a company [wants to] convert an existing product that they have on the market already, but they want to make it more bio-based. They come to us to see how they can incorporate soy into their product either through a direct replacement or an entirely new product line that incorporates soy.”

The lab’s founder and chief laboratory officer, Barry McGraw, says consumers and industrial chemical companies are looking for biobased solutions and biobased products, sometimes to replace existing petroleum products or to add a new product for which their customers are looking.

“We wear kind of the ‘biobased’ or the ‘soy-based’ hat 100% of the time,” said McGraw during a recent interview. “As far as I know, this may be the only research and development lab that focuses on one raw material, which is soybean oil or soybeans.”

ARL was founded in 2019 by the Ohio Soybean Council, the state’s Soybean Checkoff arm, with the aim of developing soy-based products for companies that prefer to generate a more environmentally friendly footprint.

The lab gets funding from the checkoff councils of four other states. In addition to Ohio, there’s financial help from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Michigan. “That allows us to do the up-front research and development for commercial companies that are interested in soy-based products without any cost to them,” said McGraw. “All we ask of them is the ability to evaluate our material for their specific application.”

Industrial uses for soy have become ubiquitous, notably with the proliferation of soy ink in the late 1980s. Since then, soybean oil has progressively taken the place of petrochemicals in thousands of consumer products ranging from tires to solvents to carpet backing to shoes. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever stuffed a Christmas stocking with a pleasantly scented soy candle.)

None of soy’s industrial use success stories was written quickly or inexpensively. ARL works directly with companies to expedite and accelerate the process of bringing soy-based products to commercialization, which “is very hard and challenging,” according to McGraw. “We work with commercial companies that are interested in us developing a soy-based product for them. It just increases the probability of success.”

McGraw concedes, however, that success in commercializing a soy-based product is not guaranteed.

“When we start a project, we’re focused on proof of principle, and if we can’t show proof of principle, we kill the project; we go to the next project.” Understanding the market and working directly with companies to verify that a concept has practical potential, says McGraw, “gets us to the market easier.”

McGraw is also quick to point out that none of the lab’s innovations will, by itself, result in soybean usage on the scale of livestock feeds and renewable fuels.

“If you look at just one new use or one bio-based product, it doesn't necessarily get your attention with respect to acreage or demand of how much soybeans will be utilized,” McGraw explained, “but when you look at hundreds of different industrial uses for soybean oil or soybeans, it really starts adding up with respect to volume and demand for their product.”

Innovative Chemist Connor Young works on a project in the lab. At Airable Research Laboratory, a small team of chemists and engineers work to find solutions that result in more soybean oil-based products on the market. Photo Credit: Barry McGraw

The lab’s unique business model is part of the reason it’s successful and able to attract clients in search of biobased products. “We are fully farmer funded,” said Dylan Karis, referring to support from the five state soybean checkoff organizations. “What that means is we can do proof-of-principle experiments at no cost to the commercial clients that we’re working with. That reduces the barrier to entry of getting soy introduced into whatever problem they’re trying to solve.”

While the soy industry also works closely with university and corporate partners, the ARL template is proving efficient. “We have shown that we can do four times the amount of research with the same amount of money that we were [spending] with universities or research and development organizations,” said McGraw, “so when we’re talking about checkoff funding, we’re talking about soybean farmers’ money, and it’s important to me and to our staff to utilize it most effectively.

“The lab gives us the ability to develop what commercial companies want versus what we think they want,” explained McGraw, adding the recent example of a company called LFS Chemistry. That company approached ARL early in 2022 about developing a soy biobased product to reduce the build-up of scale blockage in oil and gas pipelines. By March of 2022, ARL had hit LFS Chemistry’s targets, and by April, about four months after beginning at square one, McGraw says the technology was licensed. “And now we’re about 12 months in, and we’re already in the commercialization phase where we’re scaling it up and producing product for sale,” he said, adding that ARL’s small size allows it to avoid the licensing and ownership bureaucracy that hinders larger research firms.

Another advantage that McGraw personally brings to the lab team is experience in the patent and contractual side of getting a product to market.

“By having our own lab, and with a background in contracts and patent law and licensing, it allows our company to be very versatile so we can quickly develop something for [our clients],” he said, “and we’ll patent that technology and then we’ll license that technology to a commercial company.”

Among the lab’s success stories is its development of a soy-based emulsion for rejuvenating asphalt roofs.

“By adding this soy-based technology to your roof, it can restore your roof for up to five years,” said McGraw, “and you can repeat that process two or three times to get maybe 10 to 15 years more life out of your roof.”

ARL also develops soy-based products for companies that are more readily recognizable, such as Stanley Black & Decker, the parent company of power tool brands Craftsman, DeWalt and many others.

“We helped with the value chain of getting them to switch to a soy-based bar and chain oil for chain saws,” said McGraw. “It’s nice to have some of those companies that people recognize. It has the Ohio Soybean Council’s logo on the back of the bottle. We’re pretty proud of some of those.”

Often the point of bringing something soy-based to market is that it’s better for users and for the environment. Exposure to diallyl phthalate, a substance used in small amounts in automobile manufacturing, can cause health problems.

With financial help from the Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Michigan checkoff councils, Airable Research Lab is fully farmer funded. Pictured: Innovative Engineer Alex Shand in the lab. Photo Credit: Barry McGraw

“I’ve been working on developing a replacement for diallyl phthalate by making an analog using a soy-based starting compound and functionalizing it such that it has similar properties but doesn’t have the same toxicity,” said Karis. “In one aspect, that is definitely better than the current material, and so far, our data has shown that it is [functionally] on par with that material.”

Truckers need to regularly maintain lubrication at the point their truck’s fifth wheel couples with the trailer they’re hauling. A soy-based grease product is on the market encased in a petroleum-based wax coating for clean storage and handling. The problem is that summer heat in truck cabs softens the wax coating, resulting in the pads partially melting and sticking together.

“We looked and found that you can actually use a soy-based wax, and it has a [higher] melting temperature, or basically the point at which the wax begins to soften,” said Karis. “And because that point is higher, it will not melt together at temperatures that would be in a truck, even in a place like Texas.”

The process of improving the product also means it has a higher biobased concentration.

“We increased the soy content in that product from 60% to 95%, so now they have more bio-base in their product,” said McGraw, about the fifth-wheel grease pads, “it also performs better with [improved] packaging and other performance properties.”

Dylan Karis puts his problem-solving into perspective when comparing it to doing similar work at a university research lab.

“I am really proud of being able to work on bio-based materials that seem to make a difference,” said Karis of his career at ARL. “It’s really exciting for me to be able to work on something that companies care about, and in turn, people care about, and improve essentially the base of materials available for companies to use.”

Since its founding in 2019, ARL has continued to expand full-time staffing and increase the number of companies for which it’s doing research.

“We’ve only been doing this with full-time chemists and engineers for a year, and it’s going really well,” says Barry McGraw. “I think things like this are the future, where we’re not just funding a little bit here and there, we’re going at this 100%. That’s pretty exciting for me.”