In 1929, foam rubber was developed at the Dunlop Latex Development Laboratories in Birmingham. British scientist E.A. Murphy whipped up the first batch in 1929, using an ordinary kitchen mixer to froth natural latex rubber. His colleagues were unimpressed – until they sat on it. Within five years it was everywhere, on motorcycle seats, on London bus seats, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre seats, and eventually in mattresses.
In 1937 isocyanate based materials were first used for the formation of foam rubbers, after World War II styrene-butadiene rubber replaced many natural types of foam. Foam rubbers have been used commercially for a wide range of applications since around the 1940s. There are two types of foam in use today. One is flexible foam and the other is rigid foam. The flexible version of the foam is used in furniture, car seats, to insulate walls, and even in the very shoes that we wear. The rigid form of foam rubber is used in insulating buildings, appliances like freezers and refrigeration trucks.
|Foam rubber mattress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So, how is foam rubber manufactured? Rates of polymerization can range from many minutes to just a few seconds. Fast reacting polymers feature short cycle periods and require the use of machinery to thoroughly mix the reacting agents. Slow polymers may be mixed by hand, but require long periods on mixing. As a result industrial application tends to use machinery to mix products. Product processing can range from a variety of techniques including, but not limited to spraying, open pouring, and molding.
- Material preparation – Liquid and solid material generally arrive on location via rail or truck, once unloaded liquid materials are stored in heated tanks. When producing slabstock typically two or more polymers streams are used.
- Mixing – Open pouring, better known as continuous dispensing is used primarily in the formation of rigid, low density foams. Specific amounts of chemicals are mixed into a mixing head, much like an industrial blender. The foam is poured onto a conveyor belt, where it then cures for cutting.
- Curing and Cutting – After curing on the conveyor belt the foam is then forced through a horizontal band saw. This band saw cuts the pieces in a set size for the application. General contracting uses 4’x12’x2’’.
- Further processing – Once cut and cured the slabstock can either be sold or a lamination process can be applied. This process turns the slabstock into a rigid foam board known as boardstock. Boardstock is used for metal roof insulation, oven insulation, and many other durable goods.
Unfortunately, because of the variety in polyurethane chemistries, it is difficult to recycle foam materials using a single method. Reusing slab stock foams for carpet backing is how the majority of recycling is done. This method involves shredding the scrap and bonding the small flakes together to form sheets. Other methods involve breaking the foam down into granules and dispersing them into a polyol blend to be molded into the same part as the original. The recycling process is still ever developing for foam rubber and the future will hopefully unveil new and easier ways for recycling.
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