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Tong Wang

Tong Wang, professor of food science and human nutrition, has developed soybean oil-based waxes that could potentially be used as coatings in the paper and packaging industry. These waxes behave like petroleum paraffin wax, but are biodegradable.

Iowa State University Researcher Sees Market Potential for Biobased Wax Coatings

Tong Wang’s research on renewable waxes has led to the development of several products including candles and paints for encaustic art. Now, Wang believes her soybean oil-based waxes can be used as coatings in the paper and packaging industry.

“The packaging industry is looking for alternatives to petroleum-based waxes,” said Wang, professor of food science and human nutrition (FSHN) and Center for Crops Utilization Research (CCUR) affiliate. “They want products that allow for easy box recycling and have less impact on the environment.” Conventional petroleum paraffin-coated boxes are neither repulpable nor recyclable, and cause a significant disposal problem.

Wang said that wax alternatives, including her soybean oil-based waxes, have great potential in the marketplace. Her research group has developed a method to modify the structure of hydrogenated soybean oil to make it behave like petroleum paraffin wax, yet maintain its biodegradability. The soy-based waxes are also expected to have costs comparable to the petroleum-based waxes.

Wang shows samples of the soybean oil-based waxes (white samples) and petroleum paraffin wax (yellow samples).
Wang shows samples of the soybean oil-based waxes (white samples) and beeswax (yellow sample).

“We have developed soy waxes that can be used as coatings on various packaging products. Our waxes perform just as well as petroleum-based waxes, but will be biodegradable and recyclable,” she said. They have developed several wax products to be used as coatings on corrugated boxes such as the boxes used by fruit, vegetable and poultry producers to store and ship their products with ice to prevent spoilage.

“These new waxes have been evaluated in our lab and by our industry partners on a small quantity scale, and we have a better understanding of the needs for a few commercial applications,” Wang said. “We have already received enthusiastic responses from the wax industry based on our current research.”

Wang said that even though their soybean oil-based waxes for coatings have great promise, a successful demonstration of industrial applications for large-scale commercial adoption is still needed. Her team, which includes Linxing Yao, former FSHN assistant scientist; Darren Jarboe, CCUR program manager; and Tom Theyson of startup company TensTech Inc., will begin working with several paper and packaging companies to test and evaluate the biobased waxes on a large scale. Their collaboration is supported by a grant from the United Soybean Board.

“We are at the point where we are ready to work with our commercial partners on-site to fine-tune the chemistry and produce the waxes in larger quantities, allowing for product testing and application validation,” said Wang. They will also gather data on biodegradability and perform a cost analysis on the biobased waxes.

Wang anticipates the wax market will also offer soybean producers a growth opportunity for soybean oil. She estimates that just 10 percent market penetration would use oil from 5.2 million bushels of soybeans annually.