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01 | 2008

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Foam From farmer to

Foam From farmer to foamer All the comforts of foam Article contributed by Bill Brady, Corporate Affairs, Cargill Inc., Minneapolis, MN, USA Laboratory Technologist Matt Caldwell at work in Cargill‘s BiOH polyols Research & Development Lab. Are you sitting down? Chances are – whether you’re parked on an office chair, a sofa or your bed – you’re resting on a piece of polyurethane foam. Polyurethane is just another modern miracle that makes our life easier though we hardly notice it. It is the material of choice when manufacturers look for performance and environmental responsibility in foams. A key component of polyurethane – making up about 70% of its content – are polyols, made until recently exclusively from petroleum. That has started to change, thanks to advances in bio-based polyol production by companies like Cargill, the international provider of food and agricultural products and services. Sales of Cargill’s BiOH brand of soybean-based polyols are surging as polyurethane users look to diversify their supply chains and ‘green up’ their product lines. These formula changes mark the first steps away from complete reliance on petro chemicals in the billion global polyurethanes industry. A polyurethane primer A polyurethane is any complex polymer resulting from the reaction of a polyol with an isocyanate. The original chemistry behind urethanes dates back to 1849. Today’s polyurethane formulations cover a wide range of stiffness, hardness and densities, but in general can be broken into three broad categories: • Flexible Foams. They provide the comfortable ride in automotive seating, the restful night’s sleep in bedding and the warm and inviting atmosphere in furniture. This is by far the biggest category. • Rigid Foams, are used for insulation and a variety of other applications in construction and refrigeration. They provide the certainty your drink will stay cool inside a refrigerator or picnic cooler or your house will be warmer while using less energy. • Coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers, known collectively as the CASE market. 10 bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/08] Vol. 3

Jack Dai, senior application development en gineer in Cargill‘s BiOH polyols Research & Development Lab, examines a fresh piece of polyurethane foam made with BiOH polyols. Foam Until recently, the abundance and relatively low cost of petroleum derivatives encouraged rapid proliferation of petroleum-based polyols to make polyurethanes. But the sheer scale of the petroleum industry today means that capacity increases cannot be done in small increments. The industry seems to either spend in a big way or doesn’t spend much at all. In recent years it has been the latter, leading to product shortages and price escalations, which have been exacerbated by natural disasters like Katrina and Rita. “This supply uncertainty and price instability opened the door for alternatives,” said Ricardo DeGenova, technical manager for Cargill’s BiOH business. “Cargill took the challenge to develop competitive options based on natural feedstocks such as soybeans. We chose first to tackle flexible foams, the bigger and more technically challenging of the market segments. As Frank Sinatra might have put it, “if Cargill could make it there, it could make it anywhere!” Smelling out a biobased solution Leveraging the company’s extensive knowledge of oilseeds processing with innovative chemistry, Cargill managed to overcome the technical challenges that in the past had prevented their competitors from introducing biobased polyols in flexible foams: quality inconsistency, a burnt-popcorn odor and discoloration of the foam. Just how it overcomes these obstacles is proprietary, but the Cargill team was able to race from concept to commercial sales in only 26 months, lining up an impressive list of customers that include foam suppliers to the biggest names in furniture, bedding and automotive. “In addition to becoming the leading biobased polyol player in North America, we are seeing great commercial traction in Europe,” said Yusuf Wazirzada, business manager of Cargill’s BiOH product line. “We are well on our way to building a global business.” This development comes at a time when the industry landscape is changing. Both the price and supply of petroleum and natural gas are more volatile than in the past. A more responsible yet high quality feedstock that simultaneously allows manufacturers to diversify raw material sources is proving to be a ‘two-fer’ too good to pass up. What makes Cargill uniquely qualified to serve this market? Start with the fact that the billion privately held company has more than 140 years of accumulated agricultural know-how. This gives it a big advantage in creating solutions from things that grow. Moreover, unlike its petrochemical competitors, Cargill will not be cannibalizing its existing products in developing renewably based chemistries. Thus Cargill has the right incentives to be a long-term supplier to the industry and with the ability to reliably handle global demand. Cargill’s first generation of BiOH products is considered a first step in a journey that will lead to increasingly higher levels of biobased polyols in foams, and an increasingly wider variety of polyurethane applications beyond foam on the horizon. Such commitment is manifested in Cargill’s significant capital investments, including a new Polyols Research & Development Center inaugurated in the U.S. last July. The facility has full capabilities for product synthesis, analytical chemistry, application development and foam production prototyping. These capabilities will significantly enhance the company’s ability to quickly bring new products and applications to market. “There is no other bio-based polyol supplier with comparable capability to connect the farmer to the foamer, as Ricardo DeGenova puts it. www.cargill.com www.BiOH.com bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/08] Vol. 3 11

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