Students discuss the process behind creating soy-based foam

Four Purdue University students have created the first biodegradable, compostable, vegan, and non-toxic, soy-based foam. StyroSoy, an alternative to polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, earned $20,000 in the 2023 Student Soybean Innovation Competition. 

Team member Louis Edwards Caceres-Martinez from Colombia says they got the idea for the product when moving instruments from one lab to another.   

“Basically the only option at that moment was packing peanuts. So, we were looking for alternatives to replace this kind of product because they are very bad from the environmental and economic perspective. So, we end up with a product like StyroSoy.”

Caceres-Martinez is a PhD student at the School of Engineering Technology at Purdue University.

Valeria Tellez Gallego from Colombia describes the product as very versatile.  

“It can be molded in many shapes depending on the drying conditions,” she says. “It’s also intended for packaging of large electronics and can be used in insulation purposes.”

She is a PhD student studying industrial and physical pharmacy.

The Student Soybean Innovation Competition is sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Purdue University. To win the competition, Purdue University students must develop novel applications for soybeans that satisfy a market need.

The students began working on the product in November. Tellez Gallego says the product went through many trials and errors before it became foam.

“We spent a lot of time in the lab. We had something that looked like a cookie that wasn’t quite working. In January, we developed a polymeric film of protein, which is very thin and flexible,” he says. “We started working on how to make it a foam and expand. That was the big challenge for our team. We tried several different foaming options. It was a long journey for all of us; talking every day trying to come up with different and innovative ways to create our product. We were able to develop a foam finally in February.”  

Team member Amy Tang, a sophomore from Brazil studying biological engineering and pharmaceutical sciences at Purdue, says it was also challenging because they wanted to use environmentally friendly products.

“We achieved our final product by not using any of those,” she says. “It was unbelievably hard to get there.”  

The students said the competition taught them about the endless possibilities for soy-based products. Tellez Gallego tells Brownfield, “I didn’t know the potential of soybeans (before the competition), but now I know you can do anything with soybeans really.”  

Team member Alyssa Choi of Addison, Illinois, says her best advice for other students who want to participate in the competition is to be patient.

“It took us so long in lab and even though things didn’t go our way right away, progress is progress,” she says. “Being patient can lead to a lot.”

She is a sophomore at Purdue sophomore studying biological engineering and minoring in food science.

StyroSoy’s creators say their product could significantly reduce polystyrene (Styrofoam) final disposal, which currently encompasses 30 percent of U.S. landfills and does not decompose. According to a news release on the competition, the annual estimated cost in landfills due to polystyrene is calculated at $665 million.

Audio: Team StyroSoy

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