Henry Ford in Soybean Suit

The story goes that during the Great Depression, farmers were not getting the prices for their crops that they needed. Henry Ford, concerned that his farmer customers could no longer afford to buy his cars, became interested in using crops as ingredients for fuels, plastics and textiles in a “cars growing from the ground” project. He quickly became enamored of hemp and soybeans for this purpose.

Ford took to wearing a suit made of soybean protein fiber that he invented himself and called “soybean wool.” His Model “T” could run on ethanol, and he even built a car with plastic parts and upholstery of vegetable origin. As always, he was a great promoter of his inventions.

On several occasions, between 1934 and 1943, he entertained reporters at luncheons, in which every course contained soybeans, from tomato juice with soybean sauce to soybean cookies and soybean candy for dessert.

As WWII dragged on the armies experienced shortages of warm clothing. Soybeans, peanuts, even milk made up just some of the agriculturally-derived fibers, called azlons, that were tried as wool substitutes. However, it wasn’t long before cheap petroleum-based synthetics took over the markets.

Here’s what happened to ethanol:

…[G]asoline emerged as the dominant transportation fuel in the early twentieth century because of the ease of operation of gasoline engines with the materials then available for engine construction, a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies for the federal government to maintain steep alcohol taxes. Many bills proposing a National energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests. One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government’s plans “robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich”.

The more things change…

Another reason that interest waned in azlons is that many of them weren’t very good at the time. Ford’s soybean suit, for example, was said to be itchy and weak. It took the Chinese to perfect the protein regeneration process in their quest to invent a cashmere substitute before all the goats munch their way to total Mongolian desertification.

It is estimated that, in ordert to allow for sustainable animal husbandry, no more than 200,000 animals should be kept in the region, while at present, there are some 1.6 million (80% of which are goats). There are some 2,600 cashmere processing plants in China, paying goat owners up to 300 RMB per kg of cashmere wool in 2001. A cashmere jumper of high quality is sold for up to 1,000 US Dollar a piece on the world market. As a result, the sensitive ecosystem of these arid regions is destroyed by keeping too many goats.

Grasslands being consumed together with roots and all will sooner or later turn into desert.

We sold some of the Chinese soybean protein fiber (SPF) garments as a sort of novelty sideline to our home-made soap business.* The sweaters are fabulous in feel and drape, always selling almost instantly, and I’d compare the softness and fit of the underwear to microfiber any day although they come in some weird styles. I still have some panties left if anyone’s interested, size small.

So, OK, we’ve taken the ethanol and plant-based textile ideas back off of the shelf–what about the plastics? Turns out that Illinois is ahead of the curve on this, in the form of the Soy Works Corporation:

Soy Works holds exclusive commercial rights to patents for soy protein-based plastics. Licensee customers will produce items with soy-derived materials to fill many important niches in the marketplace. Soy Works customers have compelling strategic and economic reasons to replace non-degradable conventional plastic products with biodegradable and compostable plastics made from SoyPlus(TM) resins.

Despite its innovative nature, soy-based plastic products can be manufactured using standard types of equipment common to the plastics industry. This means little capital investment is required for customers to bring the technology in-house. Start-up costs for manufacturers are also reasonable. Unlike synthetic degradable products, SoyPlus(TM) plastic comes from a renewable source, is more eco-friendly than petroleum-based plastics, and problematic waste disposal is eliminated. [emphasis added.]

The Spaulding Composites plant will close its doors at the end of the month. Maybe a soy-based plastics innovator could be lured to this spot.

*As a soapmaker, I know that one of the pleasures of home-made soap is that it retains all of its natural glycerin, which helps the skin retain moisture. However, you will have a hard time finding a commercial brand of soap that contains any significant amount of glycerin, because producers began during WWII to separate it during the soap-making process to sell to defense contractors for bomb-building. Today it is still a lucrative commodity to sell for use in lotions and cosmetics. I mention it here because glycerin apparently is also a byproduct of homemade biodiesel made with ethanol (as opposed to methanol), which can also be made into a very nice soap. There’s always so much to be said for making your own stuff from scratch.

A link to the most recent soybean inventions here.