By Susan Zimmerman, Rubber & Plastics News Correspondent
Minneapolis, Minnesota-Cargill Inc. said its BiOH-brand soya-based polyols are one step on the road to reducing oil dependence, and its first plant to make the urethane chemical will open soon.
Bio-based polyols are more than a new product-they represent a whole new industry, according to Yusuf Wazirzada, business unit leader for Cargill Biobased Polyurethanes (pictured).
A $22-million facility in Chicago to produce BiOH polyols is expected to be fully operational during November. The polyols now replace up to 40 percent of traditional petroleum-based polyols in some flexible polyurethane foam, with that percentage expected to rise.
Rigid foam will be next, said Wazirzada, and an announcement should come in a few months about several customers working with Cargill to incorporate BiOH into rigid foam. Longer term, BiOH also may be used in coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers.
"We have always, since the beginning of the project, invested in capacity ahead of demand," Wazirzada said. "We were planning for success, particularly when early research partners, soon after receiving sample quantities, asked for more. We realized (early on) that we had to scale up."
Customers make inroads
Cargill customers include the Woodbridge Group in Mississauga, Ontario, which incorporates the "greener" option in its BioFoam product for automotive seat cushions, head restraints, armrests and roof liners. The company has partnered with Cargill in trials of BiOH since 2003.
Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. in Hickory, North Carolina, also was an early research partner. The firm, which produces flexible polyurethane foam for the furniture and bedding industries, recently unveiled the second generation of its bio-based foam, marketed under the Preserve brand. About 20 percent of the polyols in the original Preserve were BiOH polyols, and the new version contains about 30 percent.
"The ultimate goal is 100-percent replacement" of petroleum-based polyols, according to Bobby Bush, Hickory Springs vice president of foam and environmental technology.
Woodbridge, in a news release from earlier this year, said it has been able to replace up to 40 percent of the petroleum-based polyols in its commercial products with bio-polyols and, in lab trials, has achieved 100-percent bio-polyol substitution.
Hamdy Khalil, Woodbridge global director of research and development and product development, said second-generation BioFoam, with "much higher substitutions," is almost ready for implementation. Even so, he expects it may be three to five years before Woodbridge reaches its goal of substituting 100-percent bio-polyols for petroleum-based polyols.
"We are learning about this biotechnology every day," Khalil said. "This is new knowledge. New information is being created."
He called it a breakthrough after 300 years of petro-chemistry and said he expects BioFoam, in the long run, to offer "unique performance advantages - specifically in the area of comfort."
But Woodbridge is taking things slowly with its auto industry customers to build their confidence. They must be assured the product has been fully vetted and that bio-based foam in use today has the same comfort level, physical properties, feel and appearance as the traditional petroleum-based product, Khalil said.
Further, he said, until volume increases and production economies of scale kick in, the initial cost of BioFoam is "slightly more" than that of traditional foam, but Woodbridge is offering it at "neutral cost" to customers.
"(The auto industry) is a conservative industry, and changes are difficult," Khalil said. "We want it to be a seamless, organic change."
Big market potential
The total US market for polyols to produce all urethanes is more than 3000 million pounds (1.36 million tonnes) and growing 3 to 4 percent a year, according to Cargill data on the BiOH market. The world market for polyols for polyurethane is more than 10 billion pounds, the firm said.
Cargill began developing BiOH in 2003, working with scientists at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. The first commercial sales came within two years.
"Compared to (other products), this has been the shortest possible concept-to-commercialisation time period we're aware of," Wazirzada said. He became business manager of bio-based urethane polyols for Cargill in 2003 and was named business unit leader this past June.
Polyurethane is made by combining polyols and isocyanates. In working to replace the polyol portion with bio-based products, Cargill and its customers and research partners join the march to cut the world's oil consumption.
"We see it as a journey," Wazirzada said. "Our tech people are tasked with totally replacing petroleum-based polyols."
Hickory Springs' Bush said his company also is working on "greening" the isocyanates side of the polyurethane formula-but that's tougher and will take longer.
BiOH won the 2007 President's Green Chemistry Challenge Award, which recognizes innovative chemical technologies that reduce negative impacts on human health and the environment. The award is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with winners selected by a panel chosen by the American Chemical Society.
According to Cargill, for every million pounds of BiOH polyols that replace petroleum polyols, about 2200 barrels of crude oil are saved. Further, significantly less non-renewable energy is required for the manufacturing process, and BiOH production will generate less greenhouse gases than traditional polyol manufacturing, the company said.
Cargill plans to increase the BiOH business with new customers, markets and applications, according to Wazirzada.
"Our vision is to be a global leader in performance-based bio-polyols," he said. It's a start-up business now, he added, but "we see it as a significant growth opportunity."
Cargill initially will focus on the North American, European and Latin American markets, but "we do have plans for Asia and have some customers in Asia as of now," he said.
The new BiOH factory will create 12 jobs at a facility adjacent to an existing Cargill industrial oils and lubricants plant. Production also will continue at a third-party toll-processing firm in the Chicago area.
In addition, Cargill produces BiOH at a Brazilian facility that also processes vegetable oil. In 2007, the company opened a 19 000-sq.ft (1765 sq.m) BiOH Polyols Research & Development Center in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Cargill doesn't disclose information on capacity, Wazirzada said.