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Spring 2005 - Oil dependence

Destination Purdue > Spring 2005 - Oil dependence

Research may ease oil dependence

By Chrissy Nethercutt

What would happen if every acre of soybeans in Indiana suddenly became as valuable as barrels of untapped petroleum?

Bernie Tao

Photo by Christy Nethercutt

Bernie Tao works in the Biochemical Engineering Laboratory, where soybean-based biodiesel fuel is made. Tao and his research assistants have developed many other soy-procured products such as aviation jet fuel, industrial de-icers and even crayons.

"If everyone began clamoring after the resources we have here in Indiana, we become like Saudi Arabia," said Bernie Tao, a Purdue University agricultural and biological engineering professor. "The neat thing is, though, that we're never going to run out. We have an inherent advantage that no one in the world can compete with."

With more than five million acres of soybeans planted annually in Indiana, Tao's research at Purdue could translate into an increased number of production and processing jobs as well as a strengthened economy.

Although it might seem unimaginable that soybeans could become as valuable as petroleum, Tao is leading research to try to make it a reality. As the Indiana Soybean Board Professor in Soybean Utilization Research, Tao is developing soybean-based products that will offer alternatives to products traditionally derived from petroleum.

New products contest gives participants an edge
By Chrissy Nethercutt

Bernie Tao, a Purdue University agricultural and biological engineering professor, encourages students to participate in his research through the Student Soybean Product Innovation Competition. This annual contest is open to all undergraduates and promotes the development of new products from proteins and oils in soybeans.

So far, the competition has resulted in three commercial products and undergraduate cash awards of more than $60,000. Products developed in this competition have been featured in national TV and print media, and have even been on board a space shuttle flight.

And he is enlisting students' help to do so. Will Smith, a graduate student in the Deparment of Agricultural and Biological Engineering from Versailles, Ky., has researched with Tao for the past two years. Currently working on a project involving biodiesel, Smith said he is concerned by the situation the United States will be in when world oil demand greatly exceeds supply. Biodesel is a fuel substitute made from soybeans that can be used in regular diesel engines.

"All of us in college now will soon be facing a world where crude oil will never be cheap again," Smith said. "It's up to us to find a renewable replacement for all of the petroleum-based products that we use every day."

While Tao and his students have already made great strides on the creation of biodiesel and other soy-procured products such as aviation jet fuel and home heating oil, he realizes the importance of continuing the research that may have implications beyond what even he can imagine.