Cargill using soybeans to lower oil use in foam

Jessica Koster
Jessica Koster, marketing manager for Cargill's BiOH polyols business, says specially processed soybeans can replace up to 20 percent of the petroleum used to make foam that goes into furniture, mattresses and automobile seats.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Have you ever felt soybeans in your couch, or mattress? Well they might be there, even if you can't feel them.

Cargill, the Minnetonka-based agricultural giant makes a soybean-based chemical used to produce furniture-grade foam, reducing the need for petroleum to make the foam we sit and sleep on.

At the Room & Board's flagship store in Edina this past weekend, customers got an education about how soybeans can replace up to 20 percent of the petroleum used to make polyurethane foam. Exhibits throughout the store tracked the journey from soybean to sofa.

Customer Steve Rustand of Minneapolis liked hearing soy beans are ending up in furniture.

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"I think it's a great idea if my furniture is made of components grown on land around us. I think that is a good thing," Rustand said.

Soybeans end up in a lot of foods, such as margarine, tofu and soy milk. But processed soybeans are also used in everything from commercial inks and adhesives to soaps and fiberglass.

A Cargill lab in Plymouth developed a process to extract liquid chemicals -- known as polyols -- from soybeans.

"I think it's a great idea if my furniture is made of components grown on land around us."

Cargill's Jessica Koster said it's not widely known, but foam made with those polyols is found in many leading brands of furniture.

"Cargill's soy is the most broadly used," Koster said. "It is used by all the top foam manufacturers. Of the top ten, all but two use Cargill's soy ingredient."

Foam manufacturers' interest in soy-based substitutes for petroleum products perked up when oil was pricey and hard to get and manufacturers remain interested in soy as a foam ingredient.

Long-term, they'll need a competitively-priced replacement for oil. Some manufacturers boast foam made partially from soybeans is more comfortable and better retains its shape.

The Freedonia Research Group of Cleveland estimates the market for soybean extracts used in foam is worth about $20 million now, and is expected to hit $170 million by 2013.

Soy foam is not any more biodegradable than traditional foam, but Cargill said that for every 1 million pounds of soy-based polyols used to make foam, over 92,000 gallons of petroleum are saved.

Some manufacturers and retailers, such as Serta and Sealy, tout soy foam in their marketing efforts. Others, like Room & Board, don't, even though soy-based foam is in all the company's upholstered furniture. Spokeswoman Carol Schuler said Room and Board may put more of a green emphasis in its marketing.

"There's always a lot of things companies do that they don't always shout about and talk about until customers are asking about it and want to know more about it," Schuler said. "I think that's the case with sustainability. More and more people care about where their furniture comes from. They want to know more background on that."

The state's farmers are certainly bullish about using soybeans more widely. In 2008, Minnesota farmers produced nearly $3 billion worth of soybeans, about 10 percent of the nation's crop.

"We are always excited about new applications that continue to evolve in the soybean industry," said James Willers, chairman of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. "Anytime you can find a new use for soybeans it's always a good thing for soybean farmers."

Industry players say the diversion of more soybeans to manufacturing shouldn't mean higher food prices for things like margarine and tofu. Corn prices rose as much of that crop went to make ethanol.

But Cargill's Jessica Koster said the foam industry's appetite for soybeans is nothing like America's thirst for fuel to run cars and trucks.

"The scale of the fuel industry is much larger," Koster said. "On the biofuel side, much of that marketplace has been driven by government mandates. In our marketplace, we've really been successful by commercial technology that makes sense. "

But there should be plenty of soybeans for everyone since the U.S. soybean crop lately has been worth about $30 billion a year.

Koster said the challenge for Cargill and its competitors is to find ways to get more foam to include soy. Most foam doesn't. Right now, soy accounts for only a small fraction of the chemicals that go into foam.

Historically, foam with too much soy has been a tad smelly. Like burnt popcorn, said one foam manufacturer. But the company expects a company with the resources of Cargill will solve such problems and firm up the role soybeans have in the furniture business.