Ford Motor Co. wants to develop foams and plastics made for its vehicles that use captured carbon dioxide (CO2) as a feedstock.
The foam, formulated with up to 50 percent CO2-based polyols, is showing promise as it meets rigorous automotive test standards, Ford says. It is working with Ithaca, New York-based polyol producer Novomer Inc. of Waltham, Mass., plus several other partners whose identities a Ford spokesman says will be disclosed in the near future.
“The new polyols and polyurethane will be used in seat cushions, seat backs, floor mats and other components like side paneling and console features,” said Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader for materials sustainability for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford.
“These polymers are undergoing rigorous testing and, in certain applications, they are already exceeding our expectations.”
CO-based polymers offer further advantages to the automotive industry in addition to increased sustainability, according to Peter Shepard, Novomer’s chief business officer.
“A large fraction of the carbon in the backbone comes from the carbon dioxide, which is already fully oxidized, so it is much less flammable than conventional polyols,” he said.
“This allows flame retardant use to be reduced.”
When the material does burn, it burns more cleanly and produces less smoke, Novomer said. “We’ve done side-by-side comparisons between our polyol and a conventional polyether polyol, and it releases about 40 percent less heat,” Shepard added. The foam is also a lot stiffer than conventional products. “You can produce a foam that provides more comfort at lower density,” he said.
Currently, Novomer’s polyols are only produced on a modest scale, and are more expensive than conventional polyols. Shepard believes, however, that at full production scale, they would be cost-competitive.
“There would be a big economic benefit by replacing a proportion of the propylene oxide with carbon dioxide,” he said. “We use a catalyst that is expensive, but at scale with a decent purchase volume, that balances out and we can be competitive, as CO2 is 5-7 percent the cost of propylene oxide.”
Ford’s Mielewski does not see cost as a problem, either. “We view carbon dioxide as an inexpensive alternative feedstock,” she said. “Depending on petroleum prices in the future, it certainly has the potential to be cheaper. We expect to achieve commercial deployment in five years, but this depends on the materials’ availability which, in turn, depends on Novomer’s ability to scale production through the opening of a commercial-scale plant,” she said.