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Purdue students invent soybean-based ski wax

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- From the flat, fertile farm fields of Indiana comes the latest innovation in alpine skiing -- a soybean-based ski wax that's kinder to the ski slopes because it's petroleum free.

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Invented by two Purdue University sophomores from Indianapolis , "Soy Ski Wax" replaces the paraffin in ski wax with soybean and canola oils. The wax earned food process engineering students Faye Mulvaney and Ryan Howard $2,500 each as part of an innovative uses for soybeans competition sponsored by Purdue's agronomy department and the Indiana Soybean Board.

As part of the competition, the students were required to do a product search to make sure their idea was original, create the product formulation, and then test the wax to ensure it was comparable with existing products. They also had to create a marketing plan.

"We picked ski wax because of the tremendous growth in recreational skiing and snowboarding," Howard said. "We thought the people who like being outdoors also would like a product that doesn't harm the hill or end up in the water.

"You look at the resorts around Tahoe and you know whatever is left on the hill is going to end up in the lake."

Coming up with the ski wax idea was the easy part, they said. They knew from the soybean candles and soybean crayons developed in earlier contests that soybean oil could substitute for paraffin in wax. The difficulty was finding the exact formulation that would give the wax the necessary consistency, would work in cold temperatures and would reduce friction. An additional challenge was developing testing equipment and procedures they could use to prove they had developed a superior product.

"If you don't have the data, nobody will think you're serious," Mulvaney said. "I learned a lot about proper laboratory techniques and testing to make sure our conclusions were defensible. It was good experience."

They found that measuring water-repellency was a good guide to how the wax would work on the bottom of a ski or snowboard. They refrigerated flat plates of polyethylene, then coated the surfaces with experimental soybean wax formulations and two commercial ski waxes. The students then compared how fast water droplets would run off the plates.

Once they had a promising mixture, they built a complicated wheel with small skis that would run the wax over a surface over and over again, testing friction and durability. Each test would run for the equivalent of a kilometer. Designing the test equipment was as demanding as making the wax, said Bernie Tao, associate professor in agricultural and biological engineering who mentored the students along with assistant professor Anton Sumali.

"There is no existing equipment or procedures to test the friction coefficients of skis," Tao said. "I think their equipment could end up being adopted by the ski industry."

Tao said the testing wheel not only simulated a one-kilometer ski run at 35 miles per hour, it also was designed and wired to run in a refrigerator to simulate real-world conditions.

Ski wax was an unusual choice for the two students, because neither actually skis. Mulvaney had gone once and enjoyed it, but Howard, a die-hard skateboarder, had vowed never to pursue the sport that had enticed many of his friends from asphalt boarding.

Howard finally went snowboarding just so he could talk knowledgeably about the sport. Still, both say they needed to know more about wax properties and friction coefficients than about skiing to create a viable product.

The ski wax is about 30 percent soybean oil, Mulvaney said. One package of wax would cost about 25 cents to produce.

While Soy Ski Wax may not dramatically improve the domestic demand for soybeans, Indiana Soybean Board President Bill Peters said the invention demonstrates soybeans' potential.

"Soybeans could replace all kinds of things we can't even dream of today. This just is one more example," said Peters, a soybean farmer from Sharpsville, Ind. "There will be more demand for soybeans if we can keep on finding new uses. Many things that aren't renewable today could be."

The "Innovative Uses for Soybeans" contest was devised by Lee Schweitzer, a Purdue agronomy professor, in 1994. Other products that have come out of the soybean competition are soybean crayons, a soy-based firestarter and edible birthday candles. The Dixon Ticonderoga Co. began manufacturing and selling the crayons last July under its Prang trademark, and Peters said some manufacturers are interested in the candle technology.

Sources: Faye Mulvaney, (765) 495-3593 or (317) 251-8784; e-mail,
Ryan Howard, (765) 463-6665; e-mail,
Bernie Tao, (765) 494-1183; e-mail,
Bill Peters, (765) 963-6970
Lee Schweitzer, (765) 494-4789
Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Purdue sophomores Faye Mulvaney and Ryan Howard, both of Indianapolis, have invented a mountain-friendly ski wax for snowboarders who like to ride the half-pipes. The food process engineering students substituted biodegradable soybean oil for petroleum-derived paraffin in the wax. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)
Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Tao.skiwax
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