Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Humble Soybean

Observe, the humble soybean. Not since George Washington Carver circled the earth in a peanut-powered dirigible has a legume seen such a renaissance of practicality. The soybean's uses are legion, and growing. I've known this, in a limited form, for a while, and I've always been curious to research just how many uses ther are. There's a lot. A metric lot.

First off, soybeans are an excellent source of protein, both for animals and humans. Farm raised chickens, cattle and fish all eat soy protein as part of their diets. For humans, soy protein is one of the few considered a "complete" protein, meaning that it supplies adequate amounts of every essential amino acid that the human body can't create on its own. This allows soy protein to safely replace all animal-based proteins in the human diet.

The fiber contained in the soybean is strong and malleable, allowing it to be used in composite building products, including next-generation countertop and flooring products. As soybeans grow quickly, they're an excellent renewable resource, and a strong answer to deforestation.

Soybean oil is where the plant really shines though, because it's a viable replacement for petroleum in a host of different products. Obviously you can cook with soybean oil. Unlike petroleum, it's non-toxic and edible. But you can also make products more than comparable to their petrochemical cousins.

Soy can be used to make biodiesel fuels. It can be used to create industrial-quality, environmentally friendly solvents, lubricants and paints, including soy-based stains and urethanes. Soy-based lubricants are renewable, capable of withstanding higher temperatures, and are non-toxic. And SoyInk, a renewable, non-toxic, soy-based printing ink could supplant petroleum-based inks with exceptional results.

Here's an interesting one. Children's crayons, normally made from petroleum, can be made from soybean oil. You don't often think about crayons as industrial petrochemicals. Another one for the kiddies; soy-based infant formula, useful for children with allergies to cow's milk.

Soy-based foams are relatively new applications, and are gradually coming to market. Ultimately these renewable foams can be as insulators, cushioning, packing materials, etc. Nearly every product currently based on petroleum could be made using soybean oil, an exciting prospect as we consider our dependence on foreign oil.

I've scratched the surface here. Needless to say more research is needed, and is underway. As time passes I'm quite sure we'll find more and better uses for the humble soybean.*

*The soybean is actually a bit of a braggart, but wouldn't you be if you could single-handedly save humanity from the coming storms of food shortage and oil exhaustion, and still have time to get whipped up into a tasty soy chai green tea latte?

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