WATERLOO – For nearly two decades, the National Ag-Based Lubricants Center has been recognized as a leader in environmentally friendly industrial lubricants and greases made from soybeans, corn and other bio-based products.
Now NABL is breaking new ground as the first tenant to move into a former John Deere tractor factory on the Cedar Valley TechWorks regional bio-economy campus in Waterloo.
“I can’t think of a greater use for this facility,” said State Senator Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, who spoke at the recent NABL ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It’s incredible to think about how much value can be added to crops in Iowa and across the nation from the opportunities that will emerge from this research.”
NABL, which was established in 1991 through the collaborative efforts of the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Northern Iowa, the state of Iowa, and the U.S. Department of Energy, has successfully developed and licensed to market more than 30 bio-based products.
These range from the first patented, soy-based tractor hydraulic fluid to niche-market greases and chainsaw bar lubricants. Scientists at NABL are proving that vegetable formulations are not only feasible and environmentally friendly, but can offer specific performance advantages.
“The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, and the petroleum age won’t end because we run out petroleum,” said Dr. Lou Honary, director of NABL and a world-renowned expert in the bio-based lubricants industry. “We are moving into a different mode of energy with bio-based products, and I’m confident we’ll have many success stories at NABL.”
Putting bio-based products to the test
The use of high-oleic soybean oil in lubrication applications is already a success story, due to its high oxidative stability, meaning it lasts longer than other vegetable-based oils. It’s also stable over a wide range of temperatures, which allows it to function better over time.
“With any bio-based product, we have to look at functionality first,” said Wes James, NABL’s assistant director. “On the oxidative stability index, regular soybean oil lasts seven hours before it polymerizes and fails the test, but high-oleic soybean oil lasts up to 197 hours before it fails the test.”
The NABL laboratories, which occupies approximately 25,000 square feet and covers the entire third floor of the Cedar Valley Tech Works’ Tech 1 building, accommodates a wide range of testing services and research.
An analytical lab allows researchers to test hydraulic oil samples for trace elements, for example, while the environmental assessment lab helps scientists determine the biodegradability and toxicity of various oil and grease samples.
In the performance testing lab, full-sized equipment, including tractors, can be brought into the large shop area, and two engine test rooms allow the researchers to study how bio-based lubricants perform in real-world conditions.
“NABL’s facilities are unique in my experience, because we have so many different applications and areas of expertise all under one roof that are focused on bio-based products,” said Patty Tometich, laboratory specialist, who noted that NABL includes six full-time staff members, six student employees and four consultants.
TechWorks envisions Iowa’s bioeconomy
As an applied research center, NABL also offers expertise in successful commercialization for bio-based industrial lubricants and greases. This kind of organization is a perfect fit for Cedar Valley Tech Works, noted Steven Dust, president and CEO of the Cedar Valley Alliance and TechWorks Biomass Technology Campus.
“This is an excellent area where companies can incubate new business ideas, commercialize their products and move them into the market,” said Dust, who noted that Cedar Valley Tech Works’ spacious campus, located near John Deere’s manufacturing facilities, is designed to connect technology, intellectual property and industry innovators to commercialize and manufacture bio-based products, including bio-plastics and more.
While the TechWorks concept and business plan were developed in 2002, the project began to take shape in 2006, when John Deere donated 43 acres, 2.3 million square feet of buildings, and funding to help launch the TechWorks campus. In 2007, 40 obsolete buildings on the campus were demolished to create new development sites, and 325,000 square feet of buildings remain standing. The six-story building, where John Deere tractors were once manufactured, now houses NABL and has room for more tenants.
“This is a place where people can see their research ideas come to life,” said Dust, who noted that the TechWorks campus offers easy access to major transportation routes, including Highway 20 and Highway 218.
There are big plans for the future of the TechWorks campus, including a Center for Technology Advancement designed to meet the research, development and educational needs of the growing market for bio-based products.
Next steps for this center include a virtual reality laboratory, polymer compounding and testing laboratory, carbon testing laboratory and more.
To share agriculture’s story with a wider audience, the TechWorks campus will also include a new AgriTech Exhibition Center. This highly-interactive facility will showcase Iowa’s agricultural resources, technological advances, bioproducts of the future and modern agricultural practices that enhance the food supply, energy independence and environmental sustainability.
“We’re very excited about this,” said Dust, who added that TechWorks is also proposing to power the campus with an innovative system that integrates multiple sources of renewable energy. “We want to celebrate the future of agricultural innovation.”
Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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