Scientists can develop the technology and provide guidance during its implementation in industry, but the entire industrial infrastructure must be designed and manufactured by companies specializing in this field. – explains Maria Kurańska from the Faculty of Chemical Engineering and Technology, Cracow University of Technology, co-creator of the method of producing polyurethane foams from liquid waste – frying oils.
Your solution has been in the news in the media for the last few years, but for those who have not heard about it yet, let us tell you what its innovativeness is and why so many hopes are pinned on it.
The construction industry is a sector of the economy with one of the highest carbon footprints not only in Poland, but also in the European Union and globally (38% of global CO2 emissions). The cement production process alone releases more carbon dioxide than the entire world air traffic. That is why lowering emissions from the production of building materials is so important for our planet. Thermal insulation foams traditionally used in home construction are made using petrochemicals. Our foam, largely composed of oils, is a more sustainable material. For other commonly used thermal insulation materials, there are no known methods of obtaining them from renewable raw materials.
The second issue is a closed loop issue. Foams are made from chemically modified cooking oils, which is a waste product, and in this way we are part of a closed loop economy.
Apart from the fact that the production of our foams has less impact on the environment and helps manage used oils from catering industry, I would like to stress that our foams are as durable and have comparable thermal insulating properties to traditional polyurethane foams. Another advantage is the price – foams lose out to mineral wool or polystyrene foam in terms of price, despite their better thermal insulating properties. Our solution can be competitive due to the fact that we use cheap raw material – waste – for their synthesis.
What is new in Eko2Izopur?
This project, financed from the Leader programme, has already been completed, but we are still working on the same solution as in Eko2Izopur – using cooking oils as a raw material for polyurethane foams. At the moment, we are working on increasing mechanical strength and reducing flammability, and we are also refining our solution for scale-up. We also want to try other raw materials, not stopping at oils, but also using biomass. That’s how it is in scientific work, it takes years. I think I will be working with construction foams for the rest of my life and, perhaps surprisingly for people outside our scientific world, this is a very exciting vision.
You’ve said that the head of your team, Professor Alexander Prociak, started research on using vegetable oils to make polyurethane foams years before you began your work at the university. So why the turn to recycled, post-frying oil? I’m curious, how do you come up with such eco-innovations, give that environmental aspect to “traditional” research?
As part of my PhD thesis, I was involved in eliminating the solvent in the synthesis of biopolyols from vegetable oils, making our foam biocomponent more environmentally friendly. Even then, I was interested in how to make the solutions we were creating as compatible with the principles of “green chemistry” as possible, but the thing that made me start thinking about using used, waste oils was my postgraduate studies in Environmental Protection at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, in 2016. And this was the period when the term closed-loop economy (GOZ) was just beginning to appear in the public space, the European Union was then introducing GOZ into its first strategies.
At the same time, we wanted to receive a grant for research from NCBR, so I thought that introducing a GOZ element to our proposal would be an additional advantage when applying for funds. With this in mind, I was looking for a raw material to produce foam, a raw material that would also be waste – it would fit in with the objectives of GOZ. And the fact that it became frying oil is a matter of pure coincidence. My husband and I were making French fries at home in the evening and we were supposed to pour the used oil down the sink. Then something clicked and I said I’d take a sample to the lab and check something. And it was a hit, because Eko2Izopur received funding from the Leader program, which enabled us to conduct three years of research.
What are the possibilities for scaling your solution?
We have already conducted some successful industrial tests, but the bio-polyols we use to make our foams are not yet produced on an industrial scale.
There are no plants developed that can be used for mass production?
Technologically anything is possible, the technology is developed and companies come to us and are interested in our product. It is just that at the moment our technology is not price-competitive as compared to other technologies available on the market, where the raw materials for polyol synthesis are compounds of petrochemical origin, hence probably no one has decided to implement it in their plant yet.
Are there any companies interested in implementation?
Yes, interested companies contact us. They do it e.g. through the Transfer and Technology Centre of the Cracow University of Technology. However, much more often contacts with interested companies are established during conferences on polyurethanes, one of such conferences we, as a research team of the Krakow University of Technology, have been co-organizing for years with FAMPUR company. We gather in one place manufacturers of materials, components, catalysts, polyurethane production equipment, as well as Polish scientific circles – scientists who deal with polyurethanes in their research.
At the moment the problem is that we do not have companies that produce bio-polyols. With one company we have already tried to implement this, but there was a problem with the disposal of waste after synthesis. But I think it was not a serious problem, it can all be worked out. The problem is that companies approaching us expect that we will give them a product ready for implementation. And we are developing our solution in laboratory conditions, and implementation still requires a lot of work related to increasing the scale.
It would be great, however, if your product would hit the market quickly… How can you ensure that?
The most important element is the possibility of synthesis of bio-polyols on an industrial scale. Companies interested in the technology should create an installation allowing for increasing the scale of synthesis. It often happens that companies expect that it is us who will design a plant for them to increase the scale of synthesis of bio-polyols. However, one should remember that this is a task for specialized companies. We, as the creators of technology, can provide technological support. At the university, we act in many directions, we are accountable not only for implementation and cooperation with industry, but also a significant part of our assessment is the publication output, and what is done in industry cannot always be published. Nevertheless, we try to support the industry, we cooperate with companies. We take part in projects with industry.
You are not the first scientist who tells me about the exorbitant expectations of companies and the stranglehold of inventions on the university. How do you think this situation can be changed?
I see a role for public research funding institutions here. Appropriate competitions funding or co-financing the design and construction of pilot plants, among other things, would be helpful. In my opinion, such competitions cannot be burdened with the necessity to implement the idea into mass production because nobody will undertake this, as with new technologies their profitability is not known.
If Orlen or Azoty Group came to you, would it be easier to implement the idea than if a small company came?
It depends, sometimes in case of big companies decision making is dispersed on many levels and this makes things difficult. In my opinion it would be much easier to do implementation with a medium sized company, do preliminary research and then apply for funding under various projects to implement the technology on an industrial scale.