Soy wax development getting new attention from research giant

It is produced by hydrogenating soybean oil

Michael Richards with various stages of production of Soy wax candles Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in southeast Cedar Rapids
Michael Richards with various stages of production of Soy wax candles Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 1992, Richards developed soy wax as an alternative to more expensive beeswax. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

The soy wax candle industry that traces its origins to Cedar Rapids could get its next stage of growth from research into high-oleic soybean strains.

The Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute is researching methods to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of producing soy wax from high-oleic soybeans. It is working closely with Soyawax International, a family-owned Cedar Rapids company founded by Michael Richards. He is widely credited with bringing the first soy wax candles to market.

The new soybean hybrids just hitting the market yield more "thermally stable" oils, according to Barry McGraw, a Battelle project manager. That means they can retain their beneficial properties after more heating and cooling cycles, such as cooking batches of fried foods in a deep fryer.

Richards thinks Battelle's research may yield superior soy waxes for soy candles, which make up a small but growing percentage of the total candle market. The research could also result in soy waxes that cost less to produce, potentially expanding the market for soy candles, he added.

The first soy candles were introduced to the market by Richards in 1993. They typically cost more than petroleum-based paraffin candles, but burn about 30 percent longer and produce less residue.

Soy wax is produced by hydrogenating soybean oil. The process involves adding a catalyst that instills an additional hydrogen molecule into the oil's molecule chain and causes it to solidify.

Richards holds patents on some of the leading soy wax formulations. One of the waxes, C-1 Soyawax, is manufactured at a Cargill Soybean oil processing plant in North Sioux City and shipped to major manufacturers in the United States and abroad.

Since the beginning of soy wax production, Richards said the soybean oil used in the process has been the same soybean oil manufactured for human consumption.

"Nobody's every developed soybean oil specifically for wax," Richards said.  Battelle's research is focused strictly on manufacturing "wax for wax's sake," he added.

Soyawax International was contracted by Battelle to produce candles from its new wax formulations and perform burn tests to record properties such as burn time.

The potential market for soy candles is growing, Richards said, because production of the declining production of petroleum-based wax. New petroleum refineries no longer produce paraffin, yielding more opportunity for soy wax in the $10 billion per year international paraffin market.

McGraw said Battelle is working with Richards because of his long history in soy candle development and production.

"He has helped us understand if we are taking out technical work in the right direction with the respect to the market," McGraw said.

Despite his company's success with soy wax, Richard has experienced what can happen when research results don't match up with the market's needs.

In 2007, Richards obtained assistance from the state of Iowa, the Iowa Soybean Council and Iowa State University to develop flexible soy waxes suitable for use on paper and packaging products.

The science yielded a wax that met the needs of the application, Richards said, but the price of producing the wax was higher than what the market would accept.

Originally confined to small craft candle makers, soy wax candles has now gone big time through companies such as Elevance and Yankee Candle Co.

The C-1 wax formulation developed by Richards can be delivered to candle makers either in liquid form via heated tanker trucks, or in wax flakes boxed and packed on pallets.

Midamar Corp., a Cedar Rapids distributor of halal meats and other foods, distributes the wax in solid form used by craft candle makers, Richards said.The soy wax research findings likely will begin to find their way into the market over the next three to five years, Richards said, due to the time needed to commercialize the discoveries.

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