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July 20, 2001

Mini mills could turn Iowa into gourment oil site

by Melea Reicks Licht, Agriculture Communications
Today, soybeans leave the farm for large processing plants, where they are degummed neutralized, bleached and deodorized into oil and meal.

Tomorrow, farmers may be able to process their own beans into specialty oils right on their farms, and astronauts may grow and process their own beans into food while on long space flights.

Two Iowa State researchers envision such a tomorrow, when "mini mills" might turn Iowa into the gourmet soybean oil capital of the world.

"If one looks at the olive oil industry in Europe, there are these little orchards all over the Mediterranean area," said Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crop Utilization Research.

"Farmers harvest their fruit, squeeze out the oil, put it in fancy bottles and sell it. The same could be done with soybeans. What is normally 50 cents worth of oil could be sold as a $15 or $20 bottle of oil. My dream is to enable some farmers to create a market just like the olive oil industry of Italy and Greece."

But, unlike olive oil, crude soybean oil is inedible and must be refined. Johnson, along with food and nutrition scientist Tong Wang, have spent the past two years developing mini mills as an inexpensive way to process soybeans.

These mini mills not only are smaller than commercial mills (making them practical for independent farmers to own), they also provide an inexpensive and "natural" way to process soybeans into oil and meal.

"Tong and I have a vision of using this process to create specialty oils that have improved nutrition, better cooking traits or other characteristics that consumers desire," Johnson said.

"Some of these would come from new soybean varieties, such as those that produce low-saturated fat products and those that produce oils that are more stable, which help your potato chips last longer. Both of those varieties were developed or partially developed here at Iowa State," he added.

Unlike conventional processing, the mini mill process doesn't use chemicals to neutralize the oil, so it can be marketed as "naturally refined." It also avoids the costly equipment used to "de-gum" oil by using a natural settling process.

In addition, the bleaching and deodorizing steps may not be needed, Wang said, because the oil would be marketed as unique. Such qualities as an orange color and aromatic flavor could be a selling point rather than a drawback.

Johnson noted several companies, most of them farmers' cooperatives, have expressed interest in adopting the oil-refining techniques.

Another group interested in the project is NASA, whose officials have identified soybeans as a suitable crop for growing in space. But even in space, soybeans need to be processed into something edible. Part of NASA's attraction to the Iowa State process is that it is multi-functional and could be used for other space-grown crops, like peanuts or wheat, Wang said.

"NASA needs a very simple means of processing soybeans into edible oil and meal that can be used for soy milk, frying oil and texturized vegetable protein, which is used as a meat substitute or extender," Wang said.

While the size of the system and the stability of the solvent could be tailored to space travel, the two are trying to solve a problem unique to space.

"We have a bit of a problem, in that there's no gravity in space," Johnson said. "We think there are ways to get around that."

Tong Wang and Larry Johnson envision the work they do in their Iowa State lab one day turning Iowa into the gourmet soybean oil capital of the world. Photo by Dan Burden.

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