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Success story: Renewable raw materials for industrial foam applications

To answer the need for biodegradable foam materials, the BIOFOAM project was funded in 2000 for 4 years via the European Commission's Key Action Five programme. The BIOFOAM project aimed and achieved to define and use a bio-based feedstock for the synthesis of recyclable aliphatic block-co-polyesters for industrial foam applications. It has led to commercially relevant innovations which should prove of benefit to the industrial partners as they implement the findings and has also served as a basis for building further research.


Foamed materials find a myriad of uses in packing, insulating, cushioning and construction. Currently, most are petroleum-based and environmentally persistent, creating a need for materials that are biodegradable while capable of similar performance to existing non-bio products.

Aims of the BIOFOAM project
BIOFOAM sought to meet this need through the development of Biosource-based recyclable aliphatic block-co-polyesters with an emphasis on poly(ester-coamide)s and poly(ester-co-urethane)s able to meet the processing and intrinsic property requirements of a foam application. The focus of this project was on the development of low-cost and environmentally friendly products and was backed by the development of numerical models for quantitative 3D predictions of chemical and physical foaming processes.

Identification of promising renewable raw materials for industrial foam applications
In general, the proposed activities were completed – though again less information than expected was provided for the anticipated life-cycle management analysis (LCMA), a procedure that integrates economic, environmental and societal considerations to establish the overall benefits of marketing the product. Potential low-cost renewable raw materials were identified, the polymers formulated and characterised, and extruder tests completed and compared with traditional products and methods. The process model was also developed. The project was innovative and the results are promising.

Prospects for marketing
Since the BIOFOAM project activities have been completed, considerable knowledge transfer has taken place with various patents transferred to Dow Benelux from the Twente University. The Centre for material forming (CEMEF) has transferred and adapted the foaming codes to REM3D commercial software that is now in use at Dow. There are, however, some problems that have to be solved before decisions on large scale commercial production can be made. This includes aspects of scale-up from the semi-pilot scale that has been tested to industrial scale. In addition, production costs would have to be reduced considerably, probably through yield improvement, before the products can compete in the general market.

Research continues
A successor to BIOFOAM has been prepared and submitted for EUREKA funding, and includes British Vita and Dow as industrial partners. The focus is on the implementation of green polyols into PU foams. A new Sixth Framework Project has been started on peptide coatings, bringing together experts from the BIOFOAM projects, while Dow is actively pursuing some opportunities based on BIOFOAM science and technology developments for which several patents have been submitted. The objective is still to produce at least one novel biopolymer for a high value, foam-market application, at a cost of less than €1 per kg.

More information on FP5 EU-funded projects on renewable materials


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