sealPurdue News
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May 1995

Purdue soybean contest fuels student creativity

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The Purdue University contest that gave the world soybean crayons last year has now sparked an earth-friendly soy-based fire-starter.

The "Fire Bean" took first place in Purdue's second annual Innovative Uses for Soybeans contest, earning its student inventors $5,000 in prize money.

The Fire Bean is composed of all-natural ingredients that burn more cleanly and should appeal more to consumers than similar products already on the market, according to inventors Amy Khal, a junior agricultural engineering student from Iowa City, Iowa , and Brian Beales, a junior in mechanical engineering from Mendota Heights, Minn. The contest is sponsored by the Purdue Department of Agronomy and the Indiana Soybean Development Council.

Khal said the Fire Bean, made entirely from compressed sawdust and hydrogenated soybean oil, could be used as a firestarter or manufactured as a fabricated fire log for fireplaces and campfires. Beales said they thought it would appeal to consumers such as young romantics and campers who may prefer to use products that don't contain paraffin or other petroleum-based products.

The Fire Bean resembles a granola bar. The students created it by adjusting the ratio of soybean oil to sawdust and experimenting with various compression rates that affected the rate of burning, time to full flame and the duration of the flame. Although no other binders or bulking agents were used, the students did add a small amount of evergreen-scented fragrance and experimented with adding metallic flakes for colored flames. They estimate it would cost 83 cents to manufacture one Fire Bean compared to $1 for a similar fire-starter already on the market.

A hiker and camper, Beales said he felt uncomfortable using some of the commercial fire-starters on a trip to Minnesota's Boundary Waters region last summer. When he and Khal looked over a list of possible soy oil applications with their faculty adviser, Bernard Tao, associate professor of agricultural engineering, the students thought there might be a market for a cleaner campfire-starter.

"When we took a look at existing products, we found a lot of strange ingredients like paraffin waxes, oils, cotton and molasses," Beales said. "Some of those products were greasy to the touch and pretty disgusting. So we tried to make something that was more environmentally friendly."

Tao said the soy oil produces less soot than paraffin products. It also takes less processing than petroleum-based paraffin and comes from a renewable resource. "Unburned fragments left in a campfire would be biodegradable," Tao said. "Petroleum products aren't."

Beales and Khal said they thought their real-world education in product development was as valuable as the cash prize.

They got the soy oil from Tao's lab. The sawdust was scavenged from a campus woodshop, and the fragrance was donated. Khal said she was surprised at how much effort was required to turn a concept in mind into a product at hand. "Nothing was as easy as we thought it would be," she said.

For example, the students assumed a great deal of pressure would be needed to bind the oil and the sawdust, so they figured out how to build a mold and fit it into a compressor. The first sample was subjected to 2,000 pounds per square inch.

"It was so dense, it would hardly burn," Beales said. "The flame never got above a centimeter high, and it lasted forever." He said the team eventually found the correct force to be closer to five pounds per square inch.

The Innovative Uses for Soybeans Contest was the creation of contest coordinator Lee Schweitzer, a professor in Purdue's Department of Agronomy. It is intended to foster creativity, scientific experimentation and business acumen by asking students to find new product niches and marketing opportunities for soybeans, Indiana's second most valuable raw agricultural commodity.

The contest is funded by a grant from the Indiana Soybean Development Council, which promotes research and new markets for the oilseed with farmer checkoff funds. Contestants are required to research existing products, procure ingredients, experiment and develop a marketing plan.

Last year's winners were three Purdue students who developed soybean-based crayons.

Sources: Amy Khal, (765) 746-5424
Brian Beales, (765) 746-4726
Bernard Tao, (765) 494-1183; Internet, tao@ecn.purdue.edu
Lee Schweitzer (765) 494-4789; Internet, lschweitzer@dept.agry.purdue.edu
Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; Internet, sig@ecn.purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu

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