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Foam innovation - Wheat Straw to Polyurethane Foam
In eFoam’s ‘foam innovation’ series, we review some of the latest industry developments and trends that are – or will – impact the future work of the sector. Many of the innovations underway at present are concerned with improving sustainable manufacturing and production processes of foam. Lately, researchers from the University of Córdoba have successfully developed a method of turning waste wheat straw – a common by-product of agricultural production – into an appropriate material for making polyurethane foam.
A key component in the production of foam is safe petroleum by-products, which are known to be incredibly versatile for the creation of foam. However, given that wheat straw is produced in vast quantities – about 730 million tons each year – and is left to go to waste, researchers wanted to discover whether there was a way of salvaging this by-product and turning it into foam.
In recent months, news of this successful development has come to light. Through a partnership between the University of Córdoba and Chile’s Advanced Polymers Research Center (CIPA), wheat straw has been liquified and refined to seek out the required polyols which are then used in the production of polyurethane foam. As reported in Polymers’ magazine, these polyols have successfully played the necessary role in the chemical reaction process that develops polyurethane foams.
Investigations and experiments have been underway to establish new by-products that can be used in the production of polyurethane foam, and for many years, castor oil has been the leading contender to take over from petroleum by-products. However, despite the positive recordings of using castor oil, there are a number of issues that still stand with its use. These problems include how it reacts when its polyols are exposed to air. The polyols from castor oil by-products do not offer complete hardness or dryness unlike wheat straw or the polyols from petroleum by-products. This is essential for creating polyurethane foam products as we know them.
Despite this, castor oil still has some excellent properties that make it a good contender as a sustainable alternative. Within this research trial, staff experimented with a mix of 50% castor oil alongside 50% wheat straw to end up with a product that offers similar characteristics presented by non-renewable products like petroleum by-products. Despite a change from the usual product used, the researchers achieved almost maximum performance from 96% of the wheat used. This is a fantastic result for an industry that is striving towards more sustainable practices.
Once the required foam has been produced, there is naturally some product left over, so another key consideration in foam manufacturing is the biodegradability of any leftover materials. Unsurprisingly, the remnants of wheat straw are far more environmentally friendly than any leftover petroleum by-product, and indeed any other similar products currently available on the market. This makes it quick to decompose, minimising its effect on the wider environment after production has taken place.
We at eFoam are proud to see the number of fantastic innovations currently taking place within the sector, and we pride ourselves on our own environmental policies.