Has soybean oil come of age as a fossil fuel alternative in SPF?
By Les Shaver
As the new uses program manager for the United Soybean Board,John Campen has long advocated the use of soybeans—butwinning over others wasn’t always easy. He remembers going onthe convention center floor at the International Builders’ Show topromote the use of soy in spray polyurethane foam (SPF)insulation. Builders hadn’t heard of his product line.
“No one knew what we were doing there and what kind ofproducts we had to apply,” Campen says. “Now everybody is veryfamiliar with soy foam insulation.”
But growing familiarity and total acceptance are two differentthings. Despite spending almost a decade building a soy polyolthat could compete with the cost and productivity potential of thefossil fuel version, agricultural versions, such as those made fromsoy and corn, still account for less than five percent of the sprayfoams on the market.
First, of course, is the environmental benefit. Spray foam of any kind is already a much greener, cleaner product. “When you use the foam, it cuts your heating and cooling costs in half because it’s so much more efficient,” says Don Duffy, CEO of EMEGA Technologies, a Lancaster, Ohio-based manufacturer of soy-based SPF. “You can create R-values and sealed envelopes that can’t be duplicated with fiberglass or cellulose. Foam is superior in every way to fiberglass.”
But Duffy took the efficiency of spray foam one step further, experimenting with adding soybean oil into the mix. “A soy-based product doesn’t have the ozone-depleting chemicals and hydrofluorocarbons. It has no formaldehyde. It makes a safer house for the inhabitants.”
Duffy isn’t alone in his pursuit of a soy SPF. In fact, the soybean polyol space is getting crowded with companies either producing the polyol alone or the entire spray foam. All of them trumpet the environmental benefits of their product.
One such company is BioBased Insulation, in Rogers, Ark. “Taking some fossil fuel polyols out and replacing them with soybased polyol makes the product a little environmentally friendly,” says Jennifer Wilson, brand manager for the company.
Another big player in the space is Urethane Soy Systems Co., (USS) a Volga, S.D. company that manufactures soy-based polyols. “[With soy] we consume more carbon dioxide than we create,” says Mike Fusco, the national director of sales and marketing for the company. Fusco also argues that soybeans are sustainable. “We grow enough soy every year to replace the soy we’re using,” he says.
That the amount of soy used for polyol formation is only a small fraction of a percent of total soy availability, and that companies can often grow enough soy to replace what they use every year, would be a very attractive selling point to green buyers. That’s not the case with fossil fuel, says Charles Wagner, a Demilec product engineer: “There were only so many dinosaurs to rot away for us to get fossil fuel-based material.”
But not everyone is ready to concede that soybean polyol has an environmental edge over fossil fuel. Shawn Rippon, vice president of marketing for Icynene, a Toronto-based manufacturer of conventional SPF urges a closer look at the production of soybeans. Don’t the fossil fuels consumed by the tractors working the soy fields cause as much damage as what is in traditional SPF?
“The soy didn’t grow itself,” he says. “What’s the carbon footprint of the soy?”
Still others answer that such life-cycle analysis has already been conducted and shows soy is greener than fossil fuels, for energy savings and greenhouse gas savings. Jessica Koster, the product manager of BiOHTM Polyols for Cargill, says that creating soy uses about 60 percent fewer nonrenewable resources than does the same process with fossil fuel. There’s also a 23 percent reduction in total energy demand. “Our process [to produce soy polyol] uses less renewable energy as well as total energy,” she says.
Similar research prompts Dow to claim that their production technology is greenhouse gas neutral and uses 60% fewer fossil fuel resources than conventional polyol technology.
Phil Sarnacke, a consultant to the United Soybean Board, adds that the soybean actually converts the carbon dioxide produced in the process into other products. “The soybean sequesters carbon dioxide,” he says, “[converting it] into triglyceride oil and then into soy meal. You have carbon chains built from carbon dioxide and water that are taken out of the atmosphere. By using a soy polyol, you’re not creating a carbon dioxide excess.”
Soybean advocates say their polyol brings political and economic benefits as well. Duffy contends that using soy polyol makes America more economically independent.
“We’re making a new market for the American farmer. . . . [Using] soybeans supports 600,000 American farmers and reduces our dependence on fossil fuel products.”
The cost of soy is also far more stable than that of fossil fuel. “Given the price situation with petrochemicals currently, over the past 10 to 15 years, soy has been relatively stable price-wise,” Campen says. “At current fossil fuel prices, [soy] should have as good or better prices. We’ve been getting a lot of calls from major companies looking for alternative supply sources and something that can bring price stabilization to their product lines,” he adds. “Soy offers that.”
But Sarnacke contends that there are too many variables to offer a true side-by-side cost comparison between soy and fossil fuel. “It comes down to the cost of processing of raw materials versus the cost of converting soy oils into polyols. . . . [Soy producers] have both manufacturing costs and raw material costs. That moves around. It’s not a constant.”
Furthermore, the product mix can affect the cost, as can yield— the amount of foam an installer can get out of a drum: the higher the yield, the better the cost. “That’s become a critical factor,” Sarnacke says. “It’s hard to say what the true economics are. You can’t make claims that the soy polyol brings you higher yield. They’re probably equivalent.”
Although manufacturers have taken different routes to develop soy-based polyols, their products still have one fact in common: None of the products replaces all of the fossil fuel in SPF. This is because the polyol in polyurethane is only one of two parts that make up the entire spray foam. The polyol portion, commonly known as the B-side, constitutes about two-thirds of the foam. The remaining one-third (the A-side) is the isocyanate portion, which at present cannot be replaced by soy.
“The soy is replacing a percentage of the polyol portion of the polyurethane,” Campen says. “On the average, it’s in the neighborhood of 25 or 30 percent. It’s higher in certain applications. As technology improves, I think a 50 or 60 percent replacement for certain applications is possible.”
BioBased Systems seems aware of the issue and avoids advertising exactly how much of the fossil fuel portion of the polyol it is replacing. “That number can be skewed in a lot of different ways,” Wilson says. “Since this is so new, they haven’t established guidelines for reporting this. So just to keep us from trying to report more than are, we don’t talk about the bio content percentage.”
Duffy holds out hope that one day soybean oil will be able to replace the isocyanate. “Someday we will,” he says. “Right now we don’t have the technology. It takes time.”
Campen doesn’t expect soy to muscle fossil fuel out of the market, though. “Soy is not going to come in most all applications and replace all of the fossil fuel. I think they’re a good complement to each other.”
After reviewing potential energy efficiency, dependence on fuels, and complex formulas, the bottom-line question about soybean polyols in spray foams remains whether soy performs as well as fossil fuel. Even if foams with soy polyols are considered to be friendlier to the environment, contractors and builders won’t just start using them. For that, they need consistency and performance as well as the environmental benefits.
“Informed applicators and builders want to use green materials but don’t want to sacrifice performance,” says Joel Johnson, General Manager of BASF Polyurethane Foam Enterprises. Johnson believes that soy-based products have difficulty matching performance characteristics and shelf life of more established technology. At the same time, Johnson believes that fossil-fuel alternatives can achieve high performance, and BASF PFE is exploring sucrose-based polyols derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. But whatever the underlying technology, product performance will be the ultimate measure of success.
Rippon voices a similar concern about performance. “We haven’t found a soy polyol that has the performance characteristics we require,” he says.
Others are more enthusiastic about how the products compare. “For us to say we have a product that is bio-based and performs just as well as a fossil fuel-based product is no small feat,” Wilson says. “We’re getting a polyol that performs like fossil fuel polyol so that the foam expands to the amount it’s supposed to, has the density that it’s supposed to, and has the R-value that it’s supposed to.”
In fact, some people on the soybean side say it has passed its fossil fuel competitors. “We think performance- and productivity-wise it competes well right now,” Campen says. “It insulates better. If you’re using two-by-fours or two-by-sixes and filling in the crevice, the R-value is better and you save on heating and cooling. It provides a major saving as far as energy is concerned.”
But does anyone know about the gains producers of soy polyols have made? Not really. As stated, foams with soy-based polyol capture less than five percent of the market. In order to capture more, soy advocates will have to prove to non-soy polyol manufacturers that their product works as advertised. “It’s a matter of educating people and making them aware there’s such a product in the first place,” Duffy says. “It’s getting them the information to make the decision. On a cultural level, that takes time.”
Les Shaver is Senior Editor of BIG BUILDER, also published by Hanley Wood.