15. Apr 2016

Recyclable, sugar-derived foam — a renewable alternative to traditional polyurethanes?

In the future, cushion foam and other products made from polyurethanes might just get a "green" makeover.

Polyurethanes in products from cushy sofas to stretchy spandex have made sitting, sleeping and walking more comfortable. But once they have served their purpose, most of the non-degradable materials pile up in landfills. Now scientists report in the journal ACS Macro Letters a potential way to reduce future waste: a chemically recyclable foam made using a new sugar-derived material.

Polyurethanes are highly versatile materials. In the form of coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers, and foams, they play a vital role in the consumer goods, automotive, and construction industries. However, the inevitable disposal of nondegradable postconsumer polyurethane products constitutes a massive waste management problem that has yet to be solved. To tackle this, scientists are pursuing more sustainable options.

At the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, researcher Marc A. Hillmyer and colleagues developed an efficient method to make a sugar-derived rubbery polyester compound called poly(β-methyl-δ-valerolactone), or PMVL. Renewable and degradable, PMVL was found to be able to replace petroleum-derived polyols in making both new chemically-recyclable polyurethanes thermoplastic polyurethanes and flexible foams. 


Using this new polymer, the researchers made flexible polyurethane foams that were comparable in performance to commercial analogs. To test whether the foams could be recycled, the team first added a catalyst, then heated the materials to a high temperature. Through this process, the researchers recovered up to 97 percent of the starting β-methyl-δ-valerolactone (MVL) monomer in high purity. The researchers then used what they recovered to re-make PMVL with essentially identical properties. This recycling strategy bypasses many of the technical challenges that currently preclude the practical chemical recycling of PUs.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation supported Center for Sustainable Polymers and the University of Minnesota Graduate School.(KL)


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