Lipid materials could decrease dependence on fossil fuels

By Alexandria Eldridge – October 8, 2010

Polyurethane is a chemical used in the production of foams, adhesives, coatings and hard plastics. One of the major raw materials for polyurethane is polyol, a petrochemical. Lipid Products Research Alberta (LiPRA) has developed a process of producing polyurethane from a bio-based polyol, specifically from canola and other vegetable oils. 

“We have developed a process which we’re patenting. We’re going to do the work to show that we can scale up the production of this polyol material, which [manufacturers] can use in their existing processes,” said Jonathan Curtis, Scientific Director of LiPRA. 

LiPRA has a partnership with a local building materials company to produce structured insulated panels using the lipid polyol. They also have another partnership with an Ontario-based car-part manufacturer to make foam parts. 

Paul Tiege, LiPRA’s business director, explained that the LiPRA team has developed a platform process, allowing them to make different products out of the polyol, from foams to coatings.

“The polyol that you might use to make a foam would have different characteristics than the polyol that would be ideal for a polyurethane coating,” he said. “From our basic process, we can then branch out and use it to make different types of polyol. So it’s very versatile, but at the same time it retains that simplicity that we think will allow it to be economically feasible.” 

Curtis added that the key to making these products attractive to manufacturers is to develop a cheap process, which they are going to demonstrate in their partnerships. 

“We believe that this process we’ve got is simple and economically viable. We have to reduce that to practice before we can really say that’s true, so one of the key deliverables for these projects is to do just that – to demonstrate the economics and demonstrate pilot-scale production,” he said. 

Five million tonnes of petrochemical polyol is manufactured each year. The polyurethane materials that LiPRA has produced so far are actually 50 per cent canola oil, with 50 per cent still coming from petroleum sources, but the group is working on reducing the percentage derived from fossil fuels even further. 

Curtis explained that these bio-based materials offer an attractive option for manufacturers who are looking to make their production more sustainable. 

“Everybody’s looking to use renewable resources for materials, as well as for energy. So now is a fantastic time to get into it because there’s a tremendous interest in getting a hold of bio-based materials.” 

The global polyurethane market is $10 billion per year. The process created by LiPRA provides a potentially huge alternative market for producers of canola and other vegetable oils. 

“Firstly, the producers are able to sell a lower grade, less processed product. And secondly, they’re more likely to get a fixed price. The companies know ahead of time what they want, instead of the fluctuations of food costs,” Curtis said. “Because we’re such a major producer of oil seeds in this province, it would be nice to develop industries for processing those oil seeds.”

The research was funded by the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, NSERC, Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions and the Alberta Canola Producers Commission.

* Image: Research Associate Xiaohua King and Professor Jonathan Curtis