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Deere engineer leads bio-based polymers
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Jay Olson is global manager of materials engineering at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center.
MOLINE -- Jay Olson of Bettendorf plays a key role in helping John Deere provide a larger market for the corn and soybeans of its farmer customers.

The 53-year-old native of Woodhull, Ill., who grew up on a corn and soybean farm, is global manager of materials engineering at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center, next to the World Headquarters in Moline. Among his jobs is to lead engineering and design for use of bio-based materials in soy- and corn-based composite panels for all of Deere's farm equipment.

"If you can use a renewable, recyclable material at the same cost, why wouldn't you?" Mr. Olson said of corn and soybean oils used to replace petroleum in plastics. "No. 1, we're a green company; No. 2, it helps our customers to expand their markets. It's increasing the value, you're using it for a higher value."

"We're applicators of the process, in materials engineering," the 32-year Deere veteran said. "We provide the knowledge to our design engineers and manufacturing engineers on how to better apply materials."

Deere began working with the University of Delaware in 1997 to develop a soybean-based resin for use in fiberglass reinforced plastic components, replacing metal with plastic. The first part produced with a soybean-based resin was a door on a John Deere round hay baler assembled in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Based on that success, the resin was used in 2001 to mold rear wall panels for combines at John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline. The process involves crushing the grain and extracting the oil, which is then processed into the polymer. The soybean oil replaces the petroleum in that stage of the process.

A similar process is used when producing ethanol from corn, and Deere uses corn and soybeans equally to make the polymers, Mr. Olson said. The resulting plastic "is the same whether it's bio or petroleum," he said. "So it doesn't really impact how we're using the product. The material properties are the same."

Deere found through testing that grain-based parts and panels are lighter, stronger and longer lasting than petroleum-based plastics.

The effort started as an initiative of the United Soybean Board, funded by farmers' revenues, Mr. Olson said.

"They can take a penny per bushel that goes to a fund that does marketing and research on how to expand usage of soybeans," he said. Corn growers do it differently, in a process that varies by state.

"They're pushing us," he said of farmers urging Deere to make more bio-based plastics. "They're very thankful. We have machines harvesting beans, then the beans are making the machines. That's really the future."

Deere was the first agricultural company to put a bio-polymer in a durable-good product, Mr. Olson said. The automaker Toyota first did it in its industry, he noted.

Mr. Olson led the Deere team to implement soy- and corn-based composite materials in both combines and tractors, and they're now used in virtually all product lines.

"It's diverting what would have been used for ethanol and vegetable oil," he said. "Look at petroleum -- roughly 4 percent of oil (nationally) is used for plastics, and today roughly 4 percent of plastics is bio-material. It's so small, yet, we're just at the infancy.

"We're at the point where it's accelerating," Mr. Olson said, noting growth is about 30 percent a year. "And it's changed so rapidly now, the impact of using corn is carbon-neutral depending how you want to measure it.

"Everybody uses renewable, recyclable. It's sustainability, that's the big buzzword," he said, reflecting Deere's commitment. "It's how we do everything we do. When my father and grandfather farmed, there was nothing wasted on that farm. You build everything off your natural materials."

Deere doesn't have a specific percentage goal for corn- and soy-based composites, but it prefers the use of renewable materials whenever possible if the cost is the same, Mr. Olson said.

"The cost will come down; as large companies get into the business, you have economies of scale," he said, adding it's more attractive as the price of crude oil rises. "In 1997, oil was, like, $20 a barrel, all of a sudden there was a lot of interest when it hit $50, then $100.

"Anything above $70 a barrel, the bio material can be competitive," Mr. Olson said. In November, the price was $87 a barrel.

Deere also uses corn-cob material as filler for plastics in hoods for seeding equipment made in Moline, replacing crushed glass filler.

Mr. Olson received his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, and started with Deere in an internship during college. He received his MBA from the University of Iowa in 1993.

Working on his family farm is why Mr. Olson wanted to work for the world's biggest maker of farm equipment. "I wouldn't be at Deere if I didn't grow up on a farm," he said. "Everything I knew I learned from my dad."

Partly due to his global efforts with polymers, the Quad City Engineering and Science Council (QCESC) named Mr. Olson its 2010 Senior Engineer of the Year.

"Jay is recognized worldwide within Deere as a leader in the application of composites," said Dave Smith, a QCESC board member who worked with Mr. Olson at the Technical Center before retiring three years ago. "He works well with others and has great energy and enthusiasm for seeing a job is done correctly. He's an outstanding engineer and person."

"I was shocked," Mr. Olson said of the award. "There are a lot of other engineers more deserving."

In the U.S., he oversees 50 materials engineers and is working to promote bio-based plastics to other countries.

"Now that we're global, that's our No. 1 mission, to expand our business globally -- in China, India, Europe and Brazil," he said, noting bio-based polymers are more common in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Mr. Olson visits each region where Deere does business annually, and in November he went to India.

Deere is also working with Sears Manufacturing in Davenport on soy-based urethane foams for seating and arm rests that may be available in the company's 2011 equipment.

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