History of Industrial Utilization of Soybeans

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

During the mid-1980s in the U.S. there has been a rebirth of interest in research on soybean utilization, and especially in industrial utilization. This paper will trace the background of that interest.

As early as 980 A.D. the Chinese were using soy oil, mixed with tung oil, for caulking boats, and by the 1500s soybean cake began to be widely used in China as a fertilizer. The earliest known reference to industrial uses of soybeans in the West was in 1880, when Bryan, an American, noted that soy oil could be used as a substitute for linseed oil in paints, or be burned in lamps.

The heyday of interest in industrial utilization of soybeans took place in America during the 1930s and Great Depression, spurred largely by the work of Henry Ford, the Farm Chemurgic Council (founded in 1935), the Chemurgic movement, and the U.S. Regional Soybean Industrial Products Laboratory (founded 1936 at the University of Illinois). The goal was to make industrial products from farm crops to help depressed farmers. The soybean was one of the great success stories of the Chemurgic movement.

Starting in the mid-1980s foreign soybean competition, largely from Latin America, and huge surpluses of soy oil led to a rebirth of interest in research on soybean utilization, especially industrial utilization, that could lead to new value-added products for new markets. Promising applications included soy oil for printing inks, dust suppressants, diesel fuels, and the like.


1. Definition: Industrial utilization refers to the non-food, non-feed uses of soy oils and proteins.

2. Oil and meal: Industrial uses can be conveniently divided into two major types, just as the soybean, when crushed, is typically separated into two major components: oil (including lecithin) and protein (meal or flour). Historically, soy oil has been the more widely used of the two in industrial applications.

3. The Seven Eras

A. The thousand-year history industrial utilization of soybeans can be divided into seven periods. Each is characterized by a wave of interest and activity that has risen and fallen in a particular geographic area, caused by a scarcity or surplus of either oil or protein resources, and in some cases by the advent of a new science or technology.

B. The peaks of interest often occur at times of large-scale calamity, such as world wars, economic depressions, and domestic farm crises.

C. A tally by year of the number of publications on industrial utilization on the Soyfood Center's SoyaScan Database shows that during each period publication activity generally follows the rise and fall of interest, as shown in Slide 1.

D. The largest wave arose in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s, caused by a surplus of farm crops.


The first wave arose in China, during the millennium starting in the late 10th century. It was caused by a shortage of nitrogen fertilizers for crops and fuel for oil lamps.

4. Oil in Asia.

A. The world's earliest know reference to an industrial nonfood use of soybeans is also the earliest known reference to soy oil. The Wu-lei hsiang-kan chih [A Treatise of the Mutual Responses of Things According to Their Categories], believed to have been written by Lu Tsan-Ning (Su Shih) in about A.D. 980, stated that "Bean oil may be mixed with tung oil when caulking boats." Some 800 years later researchers in the United States began using soy oil in caulking compounds; they too found it worked well mixed with tung oil.

B. 1855 French entry.

C. In 1880 L.C. Bryan of Savannah, Georgia wrote in the Southern Farmer's Monthly, apparently referring to uses in China and Japan: "The oil is available for many uses - for burning in lamps or even as a substitute for olive oil. Being somewhat of a siccative [drying] nature, it is not adapted for a lubricant, but is for that reason useful as a substitute for linseed oil in the manufacture of paints and other similar industrial arts." This was the earliest known reference to industrial uses of soybean by a Westerner, and the first reference to its drying nature and use in paints.

D. In 1911 Stuart, an American minister and physician in China, wrote of soy oil: "It is used as a food, chiefly by the poorer people, and was formerly used as a burning oil; but kerosene has now almost superseded it for that purpose. It is usually dark colored and has not a very pleasant odor." Specifically it was used as an illuminant in homes and temples lit with wicked oil lamps. By 1930 this use had extended to railroad lamps in Manchuria.

E. Also in 1911 Shaw (nationality??) reported that soy oil was used to a "very considerable extent in north China and Manchuria" for greasing axles and parts of native machinery. Being a semi-drying oil, it was probably mixed with other non-drying oils.

In early China the beans were crushed in cumbersome crush-stone mills, and the oil expressed in wedge presses.

5. Meal in Asia: Fertilizer for rice paddies. Earliest references. Earliest ref to meal in database?? Perkins (1969) believes it appeared during the 1400s. Because of its as a nitrogen fertilizer, it may have been considered more important than soy oil.

In 1901 Alexander Hosie, who had been in charge of the British Consulate at Newchang, Manchuria from 1894 to 1900, noted that during that period most of Manchuria's soybean exports went to southern China, through the ports of Swatow, Amoy, and Canton. There the beans were crushed and most of the cake was used as a fertilizer on sugar plantations in the area and in Java, primarily as a source of nitrogen and organic matter, but also for its rich content of phosphorus and potassium.


6. Causes of the new interest and developments.

The second wave arose in Europe and the Unites States during the period from about 1900 to 1913. It was caused by a worldwide weather-induced scarcity of linseed and cottonseed oils used for making paints and soaps, and a new surplus of soybeans in Manchuria.

7. Soaps were real use: First reference in Bulletin of the Imperial Institute (London) in 1909.


USA: Pacific oil mills 1911 oil used for making soap and paint.

8. Research on soy oil paints, and results

A. Europe:

B. USA: Henry A. Gardner and L.P. Nemzek. Extensive paint tests at Washington, DC, by the Institute of Industrial Research of the Paint Manufacturers Assoc. of the United States.

Maximilian Toch, 1912. "Soybean oil as a paint oil was practically unknown as recently as 1909." The key question concerns soy oil as a substitute for or adjunct to linseed oil.

C. By 1916 so many American companies were using soy oil in commercial products that C.B. Williams, the foremost soybean advocate in America's leading soybean growing state, North Carolina, published a 16 page circular containing letters from companies making soap, paint, varnish, Japans linoleums, oilcloth, asphaltum, and other waterproofing materials.

9. Other Western oil research and publication:

A. Europe: Goessel 1909. Patent on process for preparing a rubber substitute from soyabean oil. Earliest know patent for industrial uses of soybeans. High price of rubber at the time.

B. America

Williamson 1910 in Dalny. Waterproof liquid from bean oil.

10. Protein research

USA. Nagel 1903. First real Western research on industrial utilization of soy protein.

Europe. F.J.G. Beltzer 1911, a French chemical engineer. Entire book on "Vegetable milk, vegetable casein, and industrial products extracted from soybeans." He was interested in both the food and industrial uses of this new protein source. He detailed industrial uses including paints, in dressings or waterproofings for textiles, and as a sizing for paper.

On 1913 *Contant and Perrot were issued a French patent for a transparent, flexible, non-flammable plastic material capable of replacing celluloid, suitable for finishing, spinning, and weaving. They mentioned soybeans as a raw material.

In 1914 Dodd and Humphries were issued a British Patent on "Preparation of plastic substances and the like from protein containing materials" (including soybeans.

WORLD WAR I AND THE 1920s: 1914-1929.

The third wave arose in America and Europe during World War I caused by a shortage (from military blockades??) of oil used for making soaps and explosives??. Some of the new technologies and products developed in the West returned quickly to East Asia.

America: Protein. I.F. Laucks Co. and Soybean Glue.

Europe: Period of innovation:

East Asia, Update

Hori and Bokura, 1918. First use of soy protein in culture medium (pharmaceutical application).

In about? the 1920s, Lever Brothers had a factory in Japan producing soy-oil-based Sunlight Soap, which was very popular in China.

By the 1920s, soy oil was also being used in China in the manufacture of lacquers (it may have been used in these for centuries), paints, printing inks, and waterproof cloths and umbrellas,

By 1930 soy oil was widely used to make soft soaps that were known for their ability to give a good lather in hard water, which was very common in China.


The fourth wave arose in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s caused by a surplus of farm crops and by the advent of three relatively new sciences and technologies: Organic chemistry, ?? and agricultural engineering. There was interest in developing new uses for both oil-based and protein-based products. The driving force behind this wave of interest was the Farm Chemurgic Movement, lead by Henry Ford and Wheeler McMillen. Note that Europe has never during the 20th century been bothered by farm surpluses.

Chemurgy definitions: To make industrial products out of agricultural products.

Most of the soy oil used in the U.S. before the early 1930s was used for industrial purposes.

WORLD WAR II: 1941-1949.

The fifth wave of interest arose in America (and to a lesser extent in Europe) during World War II caused again by a shortage (due to military blockades) of oil and protein resources for both food and industrial uses. During this war, America played a major role in feeding its European allies.

Industrial utilization of soy oil in the USA was sharply curtailed after 1941, to give preference to food uses.


The sixth wave of interest arose in America following World War II caused by another era of farm crop surpluses. The Farm Chemurgic Movement continued its leading role.

THE 1980s.

The seventh wave arose in America during the 1980s, and especially from 1986 on, due to a worldwide surplus of soy oil (which tended to depress soybean prices) and to increasing competition from soybean producers in Latin America, which prompted Americans to search for value-added uses of soybean products.

Relatively little interest in industrial protein products.