Recyclable, Sugar-Derived Foam—a Renewable Alternative to Traditional Polyurethanes?

Polyurethanes are highly versatile materials, but the materials come from petroleum, and efforts to recycle them are limited

Renewable FoamCushion foam and other products made from polyurethanes could get a "green" makeover.Image Courtesy of: ULTRA F/Digital Vision/Thinkstock 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 addition to furniture and clothing, manufactures use them in electronics, cars, floors, and medical devices. But the materials come from petroleum, and efforts to recycle them are limited. To tackle the huge amount of waste this creates, scientists are pursuing more sustainable options. 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, that can be used in new chemically-recyclable polyurethanes.

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.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Science Foundation supported Center for Sustainable Polymers and the University of Minnesota Graduate School.