A local company that makes interior vehicle parts out of natural fibers is taking one of North Dakota's most abundant crops out from the ground and putting it behind the wheel.
Composite America is testing a process that turns oil from crushed soybeans into solid form, which in turn could be shaped into panels for cars, construction equipment, farm machinery, snowmobiles - and even airplanes.
"We feel very strongly that it's worth our time and effort and financing to investigate how we can be on the forefront of this material," said Scott Greelis, company president. "But the whole trick to this is that you have to have a marketplace."
The North Dakota Soybean Council is backing the project, which is expected to be completed by June. A member-owned soybean processing plant also is helping with development, Greelis said.
Composite America will test the panels for strength, durability and ability to drown out sound.
"Then we have to sell it," Greelis said.
Soybean production in North Dakota has skyrocketed in recent years as the crop became more profitable for farmers. Producers harvested a record crop of nearly 88 million bushels last year, compared to fewer than 10 million bushels a decade earlier.
"I think we're on the verge of seeing all soy oil-based production exploding into the market," said Matt Mechtel, soybean council chairman. "I applaud any company that's willing to experiment like this, because they're taking on a certain amount of risk and expense."
Many automobile manufacturers already are using soybean oil rather than petroleum oil to make interior car parts. Innovations in the car industry often trickle down to other types of vehicles, Greelis said.
This project will help him determine if his customers like the idea.
"We may take the plunge without having customer support," Greelis said. "It's a little early to say which way we're going to go."
Ballooning petroleum prices also could increase the demand of alternatives such as soybean oil, said Mechtel, who calls it a "wake-up call for the industry and consumers."
By Dave Kolpack