Penn State Elevators Go Up—Environmental Risks Go Down


The Pennsylvania State University built a winning team for sustainability. They combined the strengths of their staff for facilities, environmental management and research with U.S. soybean farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Together, they birthed a biobased product that is a sustainability solution for buildings across the country.

For every floor a hydraulic elevator services, it typically has a shaft running an equal distance down into the ground. These hydraulic fluid-“powered” elevators have a range of 2-6 stories so their cylinders may penetrate six stories underground.

Not often, but occasionally, these cylinders spring a leak. Hydraulic fluid can then contaminate soil and ground water. The deeper the contamination, the more difficult and expensive it is to clean up the spill.

“Soy-based hydraulic fluid dramatically reduces our exposure to remediation costs if we should ever have a leak or spill in one of our more than 100 hydraulic elevators here at Penn State,” explains Mark Gates, elevator supervisor.

“Fortunately, we have not had any major spills since we began switching to this fluid.

Penn State AgriTech

Mark Gates, Penn State elevator supervisor

“In total, we are using more than 17,000 gallons of the soy-based hydraulic fluid at Penn State’s University Park here in State College,” Gates says. “There are 21 other campuses of Penn State that I don’t supervise. They also have hydraulic elevators using the soy-biobased fluid so our total volume is even larger than that.”

Penn State Environmental Compliance Engineer Lysa Holland says, “It’s biodegradable so while we know we must clean up any spill, the procedures approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency which overseas spill clean ups, do not require expensive ground water remediation.”

Holland tells the history: “It all began in 1998 when the manager of our College of Agriculture farms came to me and asked for help. ‘Surely there is something we can do. Every time I break a hydraulic hose on one of my tractors, it’s bad for the environment and expensive for Penn State,’” he said.

Penn State AgriTech 2

Penn State Chemical Engineering professor Dr. Joseph Perez

“I went to work on the problem, and I discovered we had one of the leading experts on biobased fuels and oils right here: Chemical Engineering professor Dr. Joseph Perez. We solved that farm manager’s problem with a soy-based hydraulic fluid.”

With that success, Holland and Ed Jazwack, who is now retired, but was then working with Penn State’s hydraulic elevators, began discussing the possibility of a similar soy-biobased fluid for the elevators.

As it happened, Dr. Perez and some of his graduate and post-doctorate-degree students had been working on hydraulic fluid and elevator fluid concepts since 1995.  In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural

Research Service in Peoria, Ill., had successfully tested the product in the Statue of Liberty elevator. Bunge North America purchased the licensing agreement in 2005, making it commercially available under the brand name AgriTech® soy-based hydraulic fluid.

Penn State AgriTech 3

Lysa Holland, Penn State Environmental Compliance Engineer

Holland’s next step was to discuss the soy-based hydraulic fluid with the state’s DEP. After testing the fluid, they agreed that it was less toxic, biodegradable and would need less remediation in the case of a future spill.

All Penn State hydraulic elevators, known in the industry as direct displacement elevators, were switched to AgriTech® by 2009. Gates says all elevators installed since 2009 also use the fluid.

‘Perfect Case History’ for Sustainability Partnerships

“This is a perfect case history of how all concerned parties—those responsible for operations, those responsible for compliance, and those who have the scientific knowledge and skill—at a university like Penn State can work together, to advance sustainability goals,” says Steven Maruszewski, the assistant vice president physical plant, and the lead official for championing sustainability programs throughout the university.
He says Penn State has presented the case history at sustainability meetings for all Big 10 universities and at other programs, like Elevator U. Starting in 1998, colleges and universities, especially those from the Big 10 Conference, organized what they called VTCCU (Vertical Transportation Conference for Colleges and Universities.) In 2006, they changed the name to Elevator U.

Dr. Perez points out that Pennsylvania Soybean Board and soybean farmers across the nation also played a role in the early development of soy-based hydraulic fluids in general. State checkoff programs and United Soybean Board (USB) have helped fund research. “The Pennsylvania Board provided some funds for the first study on soy-based hydraulic fluid for the Penn State tractors, and USB has provide funds for study in handling the used fluid,” he explains.

Win, Win

“This is really a win, win situation,” says Holland. “It’s a case where everyone—our scientists, our maintenance staff, our administration–all came together with the soybean farmers and industry to solve a problem. I can and do recommend this system and soy-biobased hydraulic fluid to other universities and institutions…really to anyone who responsible for maintaining a hydraulic elevator.”

For More Information about…

  • Penn State’s experience with soy-biobased hydraulic fluid for elevators, contact Mark Gates at Office 814-865-8762 or Cell 814-502-7926 or email: msg11@psu.edu or Lysa Holland at Office 814-865-8762 or email: ljh17@psu.edu
  • For product information and sales of AgriTech™ soy-based hydraulic fluids, contact Mike Woodfall, Bunge North America at Office 281-419-8924 or Cell 713-471-6559 or email: woodfall@bunge.com or go to www.bungenorthamerica.com

The product can also be purchased through Bunge’s sole distributor, Maxton Manufacturing Company at Office 775-782-1700 or email: info@maxtonvalve.com

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