Alberta Researchers Cook Up Bio-Based Polyurethane
Like most generic North American vegetable oils, canola oil has been relegated to the kitchens of Canadian households. Although exotic products such as castor oil have been used extensively in the pro...
Like most generic North American vegetable oils, canola oil has been relegated to the kitchens of Canadian households. Although exotic products such as castor oil have been used extensively in the production of plastics, canola oil has never amounted to more than a salad dressing.
But that may soon change: as part of the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program, University of Alberta associate professor Suresh Narine and his team have used canola oil instead of traditional petroleum-based resources to produce the building block for polyurethane (PUR).
“We wanted to raise the value of canola crops, so we looked at other exotic oils out there and what they are used for and tried to find some functionality,” explained Dr. Narine.
Dr. Narine’s canola oil-based PUR is chemically similar to traditional PUR, in that it relies on a chemical reaction between a polyol and a diisocyanate.
First, the team uses an ozonolysis process to create a cleavage at the C-9 bond and break up all the double carbon-carbon bonds in the oil. The resulting aldehyde groups were turned into polyols through hydrogenation.
“In an ideal case, what we are creating is three fatty acid molecules which have been chopped off at the end of the glycerol, and OH is attached,” said Dr. Narine.
The research team at the University of Alberta has used the patented technology to create a versatile number of PUR applications, ranging from spray foam insulation to a series of elastomers to hard rigid plastic sheets.
Dr. Narine also noted that they have enough control over the process to change the molecular applications and create “designer polyols,” where the polyol is created with the end properties in mind.
Although the polyol may have minor differences in viscosity and reaction times, he noted that the canola oil-based polyurethane process would not require any changes for the urethane producer.
If commercialized, this new bio-based PUR will offer significant benefits for Canadian stakeholders, in both the farming and processing segments. According to the Canola Council of Canada, Canadian producers generated 9.1 million tons of canola in 2006. The Council has also noted that the industry plans to boost canola production by 65 per cent to 15 million tons by 2015.
For plastic processors, the cost-efficient process can offer a break from the high prices and sector instability associated with petrochemical feedstock dependence.
Dr. Narine and his team recently embarked on a $2 million pilot project, and the group is working with a number of tertiary partners to produce their canola oil polyols on a larger scale. The plant will allow them to simultaneously do industry trials, and produce large quantities to test the scalability of the process.
By Dr. Narine’s estimates, his patented canola oil polyols could become commercially available in as little as two years.
Alberta Lipid Utilization Program (Edmonton, Alta.);