2007 Designing Greener Chemicals Award
Innovation and Benefits: Foam cushioning used in furniture or bedding is made from polyurethane, a man-made material. One of the two chemical building blocks used to make polyurethane is a "polyol." Polyols are conventionally manufactured from petroleum products. Cargill's BiOHTM polyols are manufactured from renewable, biological sources such as vegetable oils. Foams made with BiOHTM polyols are comparable to foams made from conventional polyols. As a result, each million pounds of BiOHTM polyols saves nearly 700,000 pounds of crude oil. In addition, Cargill's process reduces total energy use by 23 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 36 percent.
Summary of Technology: Polyols are key ingredients in flexible polyurethane foams, which are used in furniture and bedding. Historically, polyurethane has been made from petrochemical polyols. The idea of replacing these polyols with biobased polyols is not new, but the poor performance, color, quality, consistency, and odor of previous biobased polyols restricted them to limited markets. Previous biobased polyols also suffer from poor chemical reactivity, resulting in foam with inferior properties.
Cargill has successfully developed biobased polyols for several polyurethane applications, including flexible foams, which are the most technically challenging. Cargill makes BiOHTM polyols by converting the carbon–carbon double bonds in unsaturated vegetable oils to epoxide derivatives and then further converting these derivatives to polyols using mild temperature and ambient pressure. BiOHTM polyols provide excellent reactivity and high levels of incorporation leading to high-performing polyurethane foams. These foams set a new standard for consistent quality with low odor and color. Foams containing BiOHTM polyols retain their white color longer without ultraviolet stabilizers. They also are superior to foams containing only petroleum-based polyols in standard tests. In large slabstock foams, such as those used in furniture and bedding, BiOH 5000 polyol provides a wide processing window, improved comfort factor, and reduced variations in density and load-bearing capacity. In molded foams such as automotive seating and headrests, BiOH 2100 polyol can enhance load-bearing or hardness properties relative to conventional polyols.
Use of BiOHTM polyols reduces the environmental footprint relative to today's conventional polyols for polyurethane production. BiOHTM polyols "harvest" carbon that plants remove from the air during photosynthesis. All of the carbon in BiOHTM polyols is recently fixed. In conventional polyols, the carbon is petroleum-based. Replacing petroleum-based polyols with BiOHTM polyols cuts total energy use by 23 percent including a 61 percent reduction in nonrenewable energy use, leading to a 36 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. For each million pounds of BiOHTM polyol used in place of petroleum-based polyols, about 700,000 pounds (2,200 barrels) of crude oil are saved, thereby reducing the dependence on petroleum. BiOHTM polyols diversify the industry's supply options and help mitigate the effects of uncertainty and volatility of petroleum supply and pricing. Cargill is the first company to commercialize biobased polyols on a large scale in the flexible foam market. Formulators can now use biobased polyols in flexible foam without compromising product performance. That the top North American polyol users choose BiOHTM polyols is validation of Cargill's accomplishment.
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