Recent headlines have made soy-based foam well known because it was used in the seat cushions of the Ford Mustang – and it continues to be used by several automotive makers.
But soy-based foam developed from soy polyols is also turning up in a lot of other products: from furniture and mattresses to wind-turbine blades, wake surfboards and military drones used for target practice. More than 30 furniture companies use soy foam in manufacturing their furniture.
Why the appeal? Many companies like the earth-friendly properties of soy – which allow them to develop great products while reducing their environmental footprint.
Ned McMahon, a partner with Malama Composites, San Diego, puts it this way: “Malama dedicates itself to clean chemistry, and that’s why we use largely soy-based polyols.”
The company makes “green” wake surfboards, wind-turbine blades, construction materials and military target drones all with soy foam developed from a 40% soy polyol.
Since Malama’s foam can be used for many applications, it is designed to cater to its specific use. For instance, Malama adjusts the foams density from 2 to 10 lbs. “A wind blade for a small wind turbine requires less density than a blade for a 60-ft.-tall commercial wind turbine,” says McMahon. “Depending on the amount of sheer strength needed, we adjust our foam formulations.”
McMahon reports that the performance of soy-based composites is similar to their petroleum counterparts. Many customers prefer it because of its green content. One example is the military drones the company manufactures that are used for target practice and shot down over the desert. “Many of the smaller pieces are left, so having sustainable materials like soy reduces environmental impact,” says McMahon.
Soy foam manufactured with soy-based polyols has become popular with several companies in the furniture industry, as well – and most recently for mattresses. As one example, Hickory Springs has partnered with Cargill and its soy-based polyol under the BiOH brand to make the foam in the mattresses in its Preserve soy-based foam line. The Preserve foam can be used in finished mattresses, futon mattresses and a variety of other products.
“When we started this work, petrochemical prices were high, we had supply concerns for petrochemical materials and were also looking for opportunities to reduce our environmental footprint,” says Brad McNeely, sales manager for Hickory Springs.
Today he reports Hickory Springs has seen advantages in durability, better feel, color retention and improvements in flammability tests with the soy-based foams. Customers have also reported that the new soy-based foams are more comfortable, says McNeely.
He concludes, “The soy-based foam is every bit as good and in some cases better than the petrochemical products. Our goal, along with Cargill, was to make a soy polyol that matches the performance of petrochemical products, and we have been successful. Soy-based foams are also cost-competitive with petrochemical products.”
The success Hickory Springs has had with the Preserve product line may just be the beginning, as the company continues to look at soy-based products for future products.
“Our new Preserve G2 foam replaces up to 50% more of petrochemical materials with soy-based polyols than our first-generation Preserve,” says McNeely. “Our objective is to replace all the petrochemical-based materials with soy-based polyols in the next few years.”
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The soybean checkoff helped fund the initial research on soy-based foam in furniture at Pittsburg State University’s Kansas Polymer Research Center (KPRC). Cargill and the KPRC then partnered to develop the first commercial soy-based polyols used in flexible foams for furniture. Manufacturing soy foam includes substituting soy polyols for a portion of petrochemical polyols. This process uses only the oil portion of a soybean, leaving the soybean meal for animal consumption.
Today Cargill sells those polyol products under the BiOH brand and counts some of the biggest names in retail among its customers. As examples, home furnishings leader Crate & Barrel uses soy-based foam in many of its upholstered products. Several mattress companies have also embraced soy-based foam, including Simmons and Martha Stewart Living, which unveiled the Good Bed.
The industry is working to increase the percentage of soy in foam furniture applications and hopes to reach 100% use of the soy polyol, which would equate to about 67% bio-content in finished foam. The key will be to increase soy content without compromising the product, and more research is needed before 100% soy products are available.