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Project description with objective identification and targets

Problem description

The sustainability of its three main pillars – environmental, social and economical, begins to be considered as of extreme importance to the survival and competitiveness of companies in the long run, representing simultaneously a challenge in the development and process of the product. Among the diagnose areas identified by the Business Sustainability Observatory to evaluate the country sustainable development, this project fits clearly in the scope of “Production and sustainable consumption” in what concerns sustainable
production actions made by companies trough the implementation of monitoring systems with specific targets of reused waste reduction, recycled and valued.

In addition, this Project meets the actions defined by the Business Council for sustainable development regarding the need of promoting synergies between companies in the field of sub products and residues.
Actually in Portugal, residues are still not considered as resources and the percentage of valued residues are below the European average.
This situation reflects the need to promote bigger synergies between companies, through investigation, that allows to value residues that are currently liabilities to whoever produce them and to create new business opportunities for the companies that transform or market them.

Recently, the increased use of waste generated by industries and other alternative sources of energy production and a large variety of pioneering chemical products has taken paramount importance. This aspect is particularly important regarding the replacement (even partial) of oil derivates, due to the predictable depletion of the planet’s fossil resources. Companies like Flexipol that produce flexible polyurethane foams generate a vast amount of waste/residue/sub products. Even with the natural search for diversity in applications and the target markets around 20% in the foam production, it doesn’t present the mechanical and structural properties needed to its normal commercialization, and it is considered waste.

Normally this waste is used on the production of agglomerate foam (commercialized as sub products). There is however a very limited market in Europe and U.S.A to dispose this sub products that start to show a visible consumption decrease. As a consequence, sub products sales price has substantial price fluctuations with significant impact in results and sustainability of flexible foam production companies.

In a business that involves high volumes and reduced margins, the value that can be added to this fraction of production has a strong impact in the financial and economical balance of companies, affecting the market competitiveness in a direct way. In years overpowered by the decline of sub products market value – not indexed to the foam commercial market value – this branch manufactures faced strong difficulties not to have loss – such is the current dependence of this pathway. In the last years, new alternatives to the value of this flexible foam PU sub products have been analyzed.

On the other hand, SAPEC CHIMESTRY SA (SQ) has been developing know how in the field of polyols macromolecular waste transformation, using essentially renewable sources, but with results that from the industrial point of view, present itself with two major limitations: 1. Low index of reproducibility – characteristic of products of plant origin 2. The fact that sources of raw materials are limited in quality and
quantity - although some industrial residues of renewable sources (like coffee sludge, wood shavings, cork waste an others) represent an environmental problem, that normally has incineration as its common solution, the individual quantity of each subclass is still not enough to support an industrial productive process. Therefore, it is being developed by SQ, a prospective study of this and other types of waste.

At the same time, continuing the investment in industrial residue waste, SQ as been focusing efforts in the search of raw material alternative sources to invest in an integrated unit polyols foam PU production.

In Flexipol and other companies in the same field, flexible foam bulk production, due to its nature, generates significant volumes of sub products and waste, about 20% of the production total. Residue and sub products use is limited and is subjected to a substantial fluctuation market. Consequently, these sub products and waste are good candidates to be a continuous supply to be transformed in polyols.

In addition, for a strong investment in innovation, especially in the current economic situation, we need to render all investments already made, in particular in experience and know-how as well as the pilot facility designed for polyol collection (Project EcoPolyol-QREN 11435) to pursue synergies established with the University to set partnerships with direct customers/suppliers. This will allow us to get real time feedback and subsequent adjustment to process parameters.

With this project we intend to respond to two significant problems:

  • Foam residue reincorporation through its previous polyol transformation.
  • The use of sub products and residues that allows polyol production in flexible foam formulations with a high degree of reproducibility.

Objectives

The main purpose of this project is the development of a production process of polyols from residues and sub products of flexible polyurethane foams PU with quality to be reincorporated in the production of new foams, with a percentage of 10-20% of the total virgin polyol used. With expected incorporation rates, there should be no significant loss in physical and chemical properties regarding:

  • Resilience
  • Compression-set humid and dry
  • Stiffness
  • Emissions
  • Tearing resistance, stretching and traction.
  • Air permeability

This Project success will create conditions for the creation of a company (Spin-off) shared by the private consortium entities that will explore the polyol production from the polyurethane foam residues (PUF-Polyurethane Foam). This implies that these polyols costs can’t be higher than the virgin polyols already used in the manufacturing of flexible polyurethane foam, taking advantage of predictable standards that require residue incorporation in a near future.

Concept and Solution Proposal

The use of flexible foam residue for polyols production presents several challengess because in order to be used in this kind of formulations polyols have to be compliant with a series of requirements.

  • Higher concentrations than 0.1% (W./W) of aromatic amines are not acceptable.
  • Polyols must have similar characteristics in viscosity level and storage requirements in a way that it can be processed by this kind of industry lines.
  • The recycling process must have a high reproducibility in a way that can originate similar products (OH number, Ph, viscosity, reactivity, color, odor, etc) from batch to batch.
  • The recycled product can´t be more expensive than virgin polyol.
  • The recycled product can´t have a very dark color or a very strong odor. It should also have VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) emission levels suitable to its application.
  • The recycled product should have characteristics at a level of functionality, distribution of molecular weight and reactivity in a way that allows an incorporation of at least 5% without changing significantly its physical characteristics in the final product.

Due to great demand of the requirements above, we foresee a study of different types of reactions to obtain polyols. The two main ways to obtain polyols to be studied are Acidolysis and Glycolysis. This doesn’t exclude the need of other types of reactions.

With the literature review and know-how of the three partners, we soon concluded that separation and the study of several types of flexible foam of residues for polyols production is essential. To maximize the amount of polyol to incorporate in this formulations there should also be an extensive study about the influence of these polyols in the physical characteristics of flexible foams and cyclical adaptation of the obtained polyols. The big flexibility and lower cost of the laboratory foam production tests will allow these polyols type iterative adjustments. The key variables to consider in this iterative process are the polyols’ incorporation rate, foam physical properties and the behavior of the foaming process.

Because high pressure flexible foam laboratory tests allows the foam production, with a suitable structure, this will be used for the confirmation and validation of the potential polyols developed in the low pressure laboratory tests.

In PUF industrial production, whatever the raw type material, the final corrections of PUF is only possible with industrial testing. However, we believe that with all the knowledge obtained during the high and low pressure laboratory phase, the number of laboratory tests can be minimized because this laboratory testing implies the production of large foam quantities.