How do you turn plant oil into polymeric materials systems?

A quick chemistry refresher

Let’s start with the basics: Soleic PU is a polyester polyurethane (PU), a type of polymer. Polymers, as you might remember from chemistry class, are materials that are made up of large chains of repeating linked molecules, like a chain-link fence. While you might not know it by name, polyester PU is everywhere in our daily lives, from sofa cushions to insulation and kitchen sponges. 

All polyester PUs, whether bio-based or not, are formed when chemical components (diols and diacids) react to form small polymers called polyols, which are then combined with organic compounds called isocyanates  to generate long PU chains. Traditionally these three chemical components (diols, diacids, and isocyanates) have been made from petroleum, but new advances in sustainable materials technology – including the work done by Soleic scientists – have opened an incredible opportunity to reduce our reliance on petroleum-based PU by turning to more responsible raw materials sources.  

Plant oil provides the basic building blocks to create our materials

We can’t give away too many of our secrets, but we start with plant oil, including castor, hemp, and algae, which all have the basic organic components needed for the chemical process. The first step in the lab is to transform the oil into diols, diacids, and diisocyanates, which are the basic building blocks needed for PU production. 

Here’s where the lab ‘magic’ comes in:  once we have these basic components, we can mix and match diols and diacids to create polyols that have a wide range of different properties – which in turn can create a wide range of materials for everyday use. So, just like you can use the same base ingredients of flour, sugar, and eggs to create cakes, cookies, or muffins, our plant oil-based polyols can create films, elastomers, and a variety of foams.

Advancing towards 100% bio-based

Currently our materials are between 52% and 87% bio-based, which means we still need to source some of our ingredients from petroleum sources. However, we are currently developing the technology to be able to produce 100% of our materials from plants at large scale. Our scientists know that this is technically possible and achievable within a relatively short time-scale – an exciting future development for our partners, who will be able to offer their customers products made with Soleic technology from entirely plant-based sources! 

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