Source: Hickory Springs – First Bio-based Foam

In 2005 Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company, producer of flexible polyurethane foam for the furniture, bedding and other industries, announced the introduction of a breakthrough foam product that reduced reliance worldwide on non-renewable petrochemical resources in foam manufacture.

Hickory Springs’ latest development came at a time of rising petroleum prices and concerns about raw material availability. The product, which features a basic raw material derived from a patented process, is marketed under the trade name of “Preserve®”. The name is a nod towards the foam’s reduced reliance on petroleum.

Vice President of Foam and Environmental Technology Bobby Bush sees this innovation as part of a larger responsibility both for Hickory Springs and the industry in general. “Our goal is to find new uses for resources and to avoid the waste that has been part of our industry’s history. Not only is Preserve, which incorporates bio-based polyol as an active ingredient, an attempt to lessen our dependence on oil, it is also an opportunity to steer our industry’s thinking away from its short term mindset. This gesture may be small in impact, but we feel that Preserve is the initial step in what should be an arduous but fruitful move by the foam industry away from dependence on a product in short supply.”

While the concept of implementing renewable bio-based products into foam formulas is not new, this product has remained tantalizingly out of reach due to constraints in both economy and technology.

With the introduction of Preserve, Hickory Springs became the first slabstock foam manufacturer in the world to commercialize flexible polyurethane foam made, in part, with a renewable resource. According to Director of Marketing and R&D Dimitrios Dounis, Preserve said, “We have now taken a major step toward positioning our industry for sustainable growth. This new process and product allows us to remain ahead of rising threats to our industry.”

Hickory Springs has successfully replaced up to 30% of foam’s petrochemical-derived polyol with a bio-based polyol made from soy beans. At this level there is no degradation of foam physical properties and, in fact, some of foam’s performance characteristics are improved.

Flexible polyurethane foam is the reaction of three basic ingredients. Two are derived from oil: polyol comprises about 60% of the foam recipe; TDI makes up about 30%. Though small in content at 2% to 4%, water is a very important ingredient. The remaining materials, used in relatively small quantities, consist of surfactants, catalysts and fire retardants, if required.

Hickory Springs’ new Preserve foam uses soy-based polyol at the rate of up to 30% of total polyol. That represents as much as 20% of total foam chemistry. Work continues with the existing bio-based polyol, and in the development of next-generation polyols, to increase bio-polyol content level.


With some foresight, Hickory Springs’ Technical Director, the late Graham Walmsley, discovered and developed the use of acetone as an ABA in 1989. Hickory Springs completed the necessary alterations at its foam plant in North Carolina and began full-scale trials the following year. This plant began using acetone in 1990 and has been completely reliant on acetone as its only ABA since 1996. Meanwhile, Hickory Springs retrofitted its other foam production plants and, as of early 1998, has utilized acetone as its sole ABA corporate-wide. Hickory Springs uses NO methylene chloride (a suspected carcinogen), NO ozone-depleting 1,1,1-trichloroethane and NO ozone-depleting CFCs in the production of flexible polyurethane foam.  Hickory Springs holds patents involving the use of acetone in flexible polyurethane foam production. More recently, the use of liquid carbon dioxide as an ABA has been added to the Company’s pouring capability.

Internationally, Hickory Springs has cooperated with consultants hired by the United Nations to assist Third World countries’ cessation of CFC use in the production of flexible polyurethane foam.  According to anecdotal evidence only, the use of CFC is common in foam product in China and other Asian countries where the black market for CFCs thrives.


Hickory Springs was the first US foam company to eliminate the use of fire retardants containing pentabromodiphenyl ether and octabromodiphenyl (collectively known as PBDEs).  Intra-company research to identify viable alternatives began in earnest in mid-2003 and culminated with the November 2004 announcement that Hickory Springs was PBDE-free corporate-wide. (Deca-BDE has never been used to produce flexible polyurethane foam).

Based on alarming studies of bioaccumulation in human tissue and negative reports from the European Community, Hickory Springs initiated its own review of PBDE findings and set a goal to remove this product, which had been the industry’s workhorse fire retardant since the mid-1980s.  An article that appeared in the LA Times in October 2003 highlighted this effort (see link) and further illustrated Hickory Springs’ role as an industry leader.

Hickory Springs was the first domestic foam producer to qualify foam for the CertiPUR-US program.  The CertiPUR-US certification process involves intense foam assessment, including VOC testing and chemical breakdown analysis. It also involves signed affirmation that CertiPUR-US-prohibited ingredients, such as ozone-depleting CFCs, PBDE fire retardants, lead, mercury and other materials of concern, are not being utilized in the foaming process.

Hickory Springs is one of several founding members of the CertiPUR-US program, which was officially introduced by the Polyurethane Foam Association in 2007 and is now operated by the Alliance of Flexible Polyurethane Foam, Inc. (AFPF), of which Hickory Springs VP Bobby Bush is chairman.

“We see this as the foam industry’s best route for the future,” says Bush. With guidance from a diverse AFPF Advisory Panel, CertiPUR-US will remain “vital, adjusting to new concerns and incorporating developing science in every aspect of foam and the foaming process.” He continues, “I’m excited about the possibilities.  This program not only levels the field, no matter where the foam is produced, but it also establishes a level of verified quality control and product safety that the industry has never had before. By complying with this voluntary program, we can confirm to customers and consumers that we have taken proactive measures to verify that our foam not only provides durable comfort but is produced in a responsible, user-friendly manner.”

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