Startup at Ohio Wesleyan University focused on green solutions for soy-based products
DELAWARE – Behind the beakers, safety goggles and chemical vials inside Ohio Wesleyan University's Schimmel/Conrades Science Center, a team of chemists is conjuring new uses for the ubiquitous soybean.
The workers, including student interns in lab coats, have a singular motivation behind their work: helping, or at least not hurting, the increasingly fragile environment.
Airable Research Lab, a three-year-old company funded through the Ohio Soybean Council, moved into the underutilized labs a year ago after Barry McGraw, a longtime Battelle researcher, asked university officials about the space.
The university agreed to lease it to the company, and in exchange, biochemistry students get paid internships, real-world instruction and satisfaction in knowing the power of responsible engineering.
The soybean, Ohio's main cash crop, is a high-protein, "good-fat" staple ingredient in everything from tofu to ice cream. But it's the bean's natural oils and extracts that can replace dangerous petrochemical counterparts such as phthalate esters, which are used to improve pliability in plastics.
The Airable chemists already have patented a liquid spray now used by Roof Maxx, a spin-off of Feazel Roofing. The solution is sprayed on asphalt shingles to extend their life, akin to a moisturizer for dry hands, McGraw said.
A similar solution is used on rubber tires to keep them flexible and looking new.
As chief laboratory officer, McGraw, 45, a plastics engineer who lives in the small Delaware County village of Radnor, said he was drawn to the challenges of the job.
"It's what wakes you up in the morning," he said, standing beside bottles of livestock shampoos and sprays containing hazardous compounds that the company is looking to improve. "It's being able to have access to cleaners that you don't have to worry about causing health problems and other products that may last longer and keeping them out of landfills."
Looking at one of the labels, he added: "It's fairly nasty ... not the best thing to be putting on any animal. Can we replace these components with soy?"
McGraw also is director of product development and commercialization for the Ohio Soybean Council. The lab is funded, in part, through the council, by a half-percent fee that farmers pay on crop sales which pays for national and local research, marketing and other support for the crop and farmers. A $500,000 budget supports the lab's five full-time workers and other part-time and student employees.
Todd Hesterman farms about 1,300 acres of beans, corn and wheat on his family-run Henry County farm in northwest Ohio. As the soybean council's research chairman, he knows well how global trade, price fluctuations and weather can affect his livelihood.
Research "gives us an opportunity to limit the effect of trade agreements on price fluctuations. Green solutions and bioproducts fall right into our camp and our beliefs," he said of farmers' natural tendency toward conservation.
Many other states and cash-crop councils fund their research through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or universities.
With Airable, "we're saving soybean farmers a lot of money by having our own lab. It's a rare opportunity — kind of an experiment in itself," Hesterman said.
The benefits aren't lost on the lab's employees, including research chemist Ashlynn Vander Mer.
"I find that most industries care more about performance than where their materials come from," she said.
Dylan Karis, lead chemist at the facility, is working on technology to remove rare earth elements from coal ash, tons of which are emptied into landfills from power plants.
"I've always been interested in the environmental side of all industries," said Karis, who wasn't satisfied with conventional research after earning his doctorate from the University of Washington. "This was focused on solving a problem and giving a bio-based solution."
Soy oil byproducts can replace petroleum-based substances commonly found in plastics, paints, adhesives and biodiesel fuels.
One lab experiment involves the seemingly mundane goal of finding biodegradable label adhesives to be affixed on already recyclable packaging.
"I think the more successes, the more confidence and ideas that come from those successes," McGraw said.
Like other "think tank" operations, McGraw — who oversees everything from marketing to research and negotiating licensing deals with businesses — is responsible for knowing when to pull the plug on an idea that isn't working.
"It's a fine balance," he said. "If it doesn't work, we quickly move to the next project. There's really no bad idea, as long as you're willing to try it and kill if it doesn't work out.
"It's a bad idea if you keep doing it, and keep trying and spend a lot of money and time on it."