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A Winning Formula

Glenville, Minn. – So much for the lazy days of summer. During June and July, farmer-members of the SoyMor cooperative hustled to raise $6 million for a biorefinery that will fractionate soybeans into high-value nutritional ingredients.

The equity drive among SoyMor’s 500 southern Minnesota members culminates four years of planning, feasibility studies and plant design work. Board members expect a new plant will be up and operating in about a year.

Not so green this time

About half of SoyMor’s members are already experienced in value-added processing. They also belong to EXOL Agra Resources, a cooperative that started operating a corn-ethanol plant near Glenville in March 1999.

“The same group working on corn wanted to do beans, too,” says SoyMor President Roger Peterson. The producers planned SoyMor as a sister site to the EXOL plant.

SoyMor’s processing methods are unlike any other in the United States, Peterson says. Using advanced technology, SoyMor will process raw lecithin, a soybean component, into high-value, nutraceutical ingredients without using toxic chemicals. Lecithin will be refined into phospholipids like phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and improve the immune system and brain performance.

“This is an excellent example of high-tech, value-added processing,” says Max Norris, AURI scientist in Marshall. “They are utilizing cutting-edge technology to go after a high-value market.”

But honing in on the high-potential opportunity was no small feat.

What works?

In 2000 and again in 2001, SoyMor’s members committed funds to study the feasibility of value-added opportunities. AURI lent technology development support and funds because of the project’s uniqueness and potential to impact many producers.

After evaluating several soy-processing ideas, the cooperative chose a unique process for manufacturing high-value isolates from soybeans. SoyMor then filed several provisional patents on the process, developed with Thar Technologies of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Most extraction processes use chemicals such as hexane. But SoyMor uses captured carbon dioxide from the nearby EXOL plant and a high-pressure process to separate purified lecithin components. No chemicals are used.

Fuel is up next

Although the process is complicated, the goal is simple: “We are all anxious to have a project that will add value to our soybeans,” says Gary Pestorious, SoyMor and EXOL board member.

Recognizing that the entire process, from planning to operations, can take years, “it’s better if people don’t know how hard it is,” Pestorious says. However, “in this case we knew and still did it.”

Peterson says the biorefinery is the first phase of SoyMor’s plan. Biodiesel production, which AURI is helping the co-op plan, will be the second phase. SoyMor then plans to construct a facility to crush raw soybeans into meal and oil.

Jerry Janzig, an EXOL and SoyMor board member who farms near Alden, says the reason for all the work is simple. “Just like with the corn, we’re trying to keep profits here instead of shipping it all off.”