INSIDE IOWA STATE
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
Copyright © 1995-2001, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.