Path to Better, Cheaper Asphalt Roads Involves Soybean Oil

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BOONE, Iowa -- Soon enough we may be driving into work on roads made with soybeans.

Thanks to researchers and engineers at Iowa State University, soybean oil was used for the first time in Iowa to create a bio-based polymer that acts as a binding agent, or glue, in asphalt.

“It's cost-effective. It's bio-based. It's something that we produce here in Iowa. It improves performance and it promotes environmental stewardship, not only because it's bio-based but you're also being able to reuse more recycled content when you're producing these roads,” Eric Cochran, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering said.

This really is a win-win for both the farming and construction industries. Asphalt is struggling with a shortage of organic compounds for petroleum-based polymers due to declining oil and gas resources and has been for years.

“What it means is, for example, Interstate-35 between Ames and Des Moines, years ago when there was this shortage they didn't have the polymer,” Chris Williams, professor of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering said. “They paved it anyways without the polymer being available and it reduced the pavement life considerably. Now we have something that is here in Iowa, that can meet that need and supply going forward.”

Also, ongoing trade disputes and excess supplies keep dampening soybean prices for farmers, but this new use for soybean oil could potentially fix both problems.

“To be able to see what happens with what you do and how that can transfer into helping society become something that's grown in Iowa, produced and used in Iowa, and, if this economy develops more, we can be an export [create] job creation. It's just a tremendous opportunity that lies ahead for this,” Williams said.

The research farm recently paved their parking lot with the new, better, and cheaper asphalt made with the soy-based polymers.

“What we placed out here was highway grade pavement that we paid county road prices for,” Cochran said.

The lot is .5 acres. Cochran said they used 400 bushels of soybeans.

They hope this new soy-based polymer will start being used on the 2.6 million miles of paved roads in the United States very soon. The first commercial use is set for early 2020 in Iowa.

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