Polyurethane is a widespread plastic that has become a staple of the 21st century, adding convenience, comfort, and even beauty to many aspects of everyday life. However, it is harmful to the environment. Scientists have proposed a method of producing renewable polyurethane without toxic precursors – from flax, fat, and algae. The new technology was developed at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The sheer versatility of a material currently produced primarily from petroleum by-products has made polyurethane a popular plastic for a number of products. Today, more than 16 million tons of polyurethane are produced worldwide every year. Very few aspects of our life are not affected by polyurethane.
However, the desire to rethink the way polyurethane is produced is growing.
Current methods rely heavily on toxic chemicals and non-renewable oil. Scientists have sought to develop a new plastic that has all the benefits of conventional polyurethane, but without dangerous side effects for the environment.
Laboratory results have shown that this is possible.
Using new chemistry using non-toxic resources such as linseed oil, waste fat, and even algae, scientists at NREL (National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory) have developed an innovative method of producing renewable polyurethane without toxic precursors. This is a real breakthrough with the potential to green the market for products ranging from shoes to cars to mattresses.
NREL specialists have developed formulas for the new biological-based polyurethane using an original chemical process. It begins with an epoxidation process that prepares a base of canola oil, flaxseed, algae, or food waste for further chemical reactions. The reaction of epoxidized fatty acids with carbon dioxide from air or flue gas produces carbonated monomers. They are combined with diamines (derived from amino acids, another biological source) in a polymerization process. The result is a material that turns into a resin – non-cyanate polyurethane.
By replacing petroleum-based polyols with natural oils, and toxic isocyanates with biological amino acids, scientists have been able to synthesize polymers with properties comparable to those of conventional polyurethane. In other words, he has developed a viable, renewable, non-toxic alternative to conventional polyurethane.