Agricultural crops, such as corn or soybeans, are increasingly used in non-food applications, particularly among companies looking to up their sustainability cred with biodegradable or bio-based products. Corn and soybeans are among the most widely grown subsidized commodity crops in the US. As renewable raw materials researchers have incentives to develop innovative products for use in non-food applications.
New Soy Technology
One such innovation is soy air filters, a technology researchers at Washington State University have been developing for four years. The technology uses purified soy protein and bacterial cellulose to filter particulate matter similar to air filters made from traditional, typically nonrenewable, materials. Due to their biodegradability the use of this technology has the potential to ultimately reduce waste of spent filters.
By manipulating the structure of the raw materials, soy air filters can also capture chemicals such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. In contrast, traditional chemical filters typically use high value specialty additives in order to perform similar filtering abilities. As a result, soy air filters may be able to provide better air quality than traditional filters at a potential cost savings. This is important because air pollution related deaths are much more likely to occur in low- and middle-income countries where cost an important factor.
Key Agricultural Concerns
While a soy-based, biodegradable filter would help limit the impact spent filters have on landfills and reduce the world’s dependence on petrochemicals to a degree, there are a number of cost considerations when making industrial products from agricultural crops.
Variability of prices due to increased competition with food applications. Soy and corn are used directly in food for human consumption and as feedstocks for animals destined for human consumption. Concerns have been raised about the supply repercussions of food crops being used for nonfood uses, particularly as the human and livestock populations grow.
Variability of prices due to output. If farmers can make more money on other crops, they will dedicate more of their finite acreage to those crops and less to soybeans or corn.
Variability of prices due to weather. General weather patterns and climate change impact quality and quantity of harvest.
The researchers at Washington State University are actively seeking commercialization opportunities for their soy air filter technology. It will be interesting to watch and see if filter manufacturers evaluate the above and other factors and invest in bringing soy air filters to market.