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Students Develop Biodegradable Soy-Based Foam

Published: Friday, April 14, 2023

A biodegradable, compostable and non-toxic, soy-based foam, called StyroSoy, earned the $20,000 grand prize in the 29th annual Student Soybean Innovation Competition during a program at the Purdue Memorial Union in West Lafayette, Ind., on March 29.

StyroSoy is an environmentally friendly, plastic-free alternative to polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, which is a product owned by Dow Chemical. StyroSoy is designed to make a variety of density packaging materials, cushions, foams and additional products for protecting valuable merchandise such as electronics, housewares and other consumer items during shipping to customers.

The four-member winning team consists of Louis Edwards Caceres-Martinez, of Bogota, Colombia, a PhD student at the School of Engineering Technology at Purdue University; Alyssa Choi, a Purdue sophomore studying biological engineering from Addison, Ill.; Valeria Tellez Gallego, a PhD student studying industrial and physical pharmacy from Bogota, Colombia; and Amy Tang, a Purdue sophomore from Sao Paulo, Brazil, studying biological engineering and pharmaceutical sciences.

The Student Soybean Innovation Competition is sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance (ISA) and Purdue University. To win this competition, Purdue University students must develop novel applications for soybeans that satisfy a market need. This is among the most popular events each year for Indiana's soybean checkoff.

"The goal of the competition is to showcase the versatility of soybeans while tackling a need in agriculture or the general public," said Denise Scarborough, a farmer from LaCrosse, Ind., and the chair of ISA's Sustainability and Value Creation Committee. "ISA looks forward to working with Purdue students each year and seeing what unique products they create. The results of this event expand opportunities and markets for all Indiana soybean growers. The students who came up with StyroSoy created a safe and necessary product that we think many businesses will use."

StyroSoy's creators said their product could significantly reduce polystyrene (Styrofoam) final disposal, which currently encompasses 30% of U.S. landfills and does not decompose. The annual estimated cost in landfills due to polystyrene is calculated at $665 million. "Our product is an eco-friendly product that can replace polystyrene for packaging (and insulation) purposes," said Choi, a StyroSoy co-creator.

"StyroSoy not only offers equivalent commercial performance versatility to polystyrene but also economic competitiveness with respect to other petroleum-based and alternative packaging products," she added. "Replacing petroleum-based products is critical in the packaging industry given the unsustainability and catastrophic impacts on environment and human health associated with the use of polystyrene."

Polystyrene is associated with the formation of microplastics and nanoplastics, which are harmful to the environment and human health. Microplastics from polystyrene are among the most frequently detected polymers in water sources. These plastics could be found in marine invertebrates that will later be transferred to fish, and finally, in people through seafood consumption.

The social cost associated with the polystyrene production is estimated to be between $4.9 billion and $7 billion per year. Specifically, benzene and styrene are associated with the development of leukemia, and the estimated treatment costs reach $108 million per year.

"Our product offers a non-toxic alternative as it replaces materials that include benzene and styrene, carcinogenic compounds that threaten human lives," Choi explained.

StyroSoy was also the winner of the People's Choice award. This $500 award is determined by votes of the more than 200 attendees prior to the awards ceremony.

This year, 12 teams composed of 34 Purdue University students and 24 faculty advisors, finished the competition. These students represent a variety of majors including agronomy, biological engineering, animal science, pharmacy and environmental and natural resource engineering. Each team works with two faculty advisors who provide technical and market research support.

This year's judges included four ISA board members: Dylan Christopher of Brookston, Ind.; Jason Misiniec of Bicknell, Ind.; Brian Warpup of Warren, Ind.; and Anngie Steinbarger of Edinburgh, Ind. Also three industry experts served as judges including Andy Shafer with Shafer Consulting, Brit Walker with ADM and Mitch Frazier, CEO of Agrinovus Indiana.

The contest introduces Purdue students to the multi-faceted uses and vast potential of soybeans while drawing on students' creativity to develop products that utilize soy. Following the contest, ISA works to develop the products, evaluate their long-term feasibility and commercial viability.

"Indiana soybean checkoff funds are used to find new uses and new markets for our soybeans, which creates more demand and helps our farms to be more profitable and sustainable," said ISA Chair Mike Koehne, a farmer from Greensburg, Ind. "This event allows ISA to create relationships with bright and innovative students and their mentors at Purdue. Some of the products from this contest will help us move more soybeans into the market."

Previous contest winners include last year's Team Smulch, which produced a soybean-based mulch and playground surface. In 2021, Team Biostimulant made a liquid biostimulant, designed to promote growth in crops grown in vertical farms. HerbiSoy, a non-toxic, soy-based herbicide, was the winner from 2020. And in 2019, drinking straws made from soybean plastic, called Stroy, won. The ever-popular soybean crayons and soy candles are past winners, as well.

Earning second place this year, and a $10,000 prize, were the creators of SoySafe, a soy-based replacement for construction-quality drywall that is fire resistant and more environmentally friendly than gypsum-based drywall. SoySafe drywall is also cheaper and easier to produce than commonly used drywall products.

Team SoySafe consists of three Purdue sophomores including Sarah Juffer, an animal science major from Fishers, Ind.; Charles Sebright, an agricultural and biological engineering major from East Berlin, Pa.

Finishing third, and earning a $5,000 prize, were the creators of SOYscara, which is a mascara that is composed of mainly soy materials. SOYscara is made from 99% natural, organic ingredients. The soy-based formula is a better option for personal wellness, and it is also more sustainably sourced than the materials that make up most of the affordable products on the shelf.

Team SOYscara consists of three Purdue students including freshman engineering major Jason Li of Oklahoma City, Okla.; sophomore biological engineering major Alison Dunbar of New Lenox, Ill. And sophomore biological engineering major Conway Zheng of Bethany, Okla.

Indiana soybean farmers' investment in finding new soybean innovations is not limited to the competition. The state soybean checkoff also funds the Soybean Utilization Endowed Chair at Purdue's College of Agriculture, Nathan Mosier, to lead research into new uses for soybeans.

At present, ISA is working with companies in the concrete industry to market an innovative soy-based concrete durability enhancer developed through checkoff-funded research at Purdue University. This soy-based product, called PoreShield, is ideal for concrete roadway infrastructure where protecting the environment is a key requirement or consideration.

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