Flexible polyurethanes, renewable fuels, and flavorings from a microalgae oil waste stream†
Renewable polymers have become an important focus in next-generation materials, and algae biomass offers an environmentally low-impact feedstock that can serve multiple uses. This study aims to develop a scalable methodology for production of microalgae-based polyols for polyurethane synthesis from waste oils derived from algae biomass. Following separation of omega-3 fatty acids from algae oil, residual oils can offer valuable building blocks for petrochemical replacements. However, unlike vegetable oils, algae oils contain organic contaminants, including photosynthetic pigments and hydrophobic cofactors that can complicate preparative methodologies. Here we convert and purify waste streams from omega-3 depleted Nannochloropsis salina algae oil, with major components consisting of palmitic and palmitoleic acid, into azelaic acid (AA) as a building block for flexible polyurethanes, with a simultaneous production of heptanoic acid (HA) as a flavor and fragrance precursor. Conversion of free fatty acid mixtures into a soft soap allows extraction of organic contaminants, and urea complexation provides isolated palmitoleic acid, which is subsequently ozonolyzed to produce AA and HA. Bio-based polyester diols are prepared from AA via esterification to provide a polyol monomer for flexible polyurethane foam preparation. The HA co-product is modified to produce the flavoring agent methyl heptanoate and also decarboxylated to produce hexane as a renewable solvent. This scalable process can be performed on oils from multiple algal species, offering valuable monomers from a highly sustainable source.