Polyurethane: a spoonful of sugar makes the landfill go away

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A team of researchers created a completely recyclable foam made of saccharine substances instead of petrol.

Polyurethane is definitely a handy material: it allows us to lie down on soft sofas, wear stretchy clothes, walk better. But polyurethane products are mostly non-degradable, and once they have served their purpose, most of them pile up in landfills. However, things could change: a new report by the American Chemical Society in the journal ACS Macro Letters describes a potential way to reduce future waste, thanks to a chemically recyclable foam made using a sugar-derived material.

Polyurethane is a highly versatile material. In addition to furniture and clothing, it is used in electronics, cars, floors and medical devices. But the materials come from petroleum, and efforts to recycle them are limited. To tackle the huge amount of waste this creates, scientists are pursuing more sustainable options. Marc A. Hillmyer and colleagues developed an efficient method to make a sugar-derived rubbery polyester compound called poly(β-methyl-δ-valerolactone), or PMVL, that can be used in a new chemically-recyclable polyurethane type.

Using this new polymer, the researchers made flexible polyurethane foams that were comparable in performance to commercial analogs. To test whether the foams could be recycled, the team first added a catalyst, then heated the materials to a high temperature. Through this process, the researchers recovered up to 97 percent of the starting β-methyl-δ-valerolactone (MVL) monomer in high purity. The researchers then used what they recovered to re-make PMVL with essentially identical properties.

For further information, read the Science Daily dossier.

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