Aircraft Cabin Management

Zotefoams: Sustainable Material Design

photo_camera Dr. Karl Hewson


Dr. Karl Hewson, director of technology and development at Zotefoams explains the company’s approach to engineering new products

Alongside efforts to reduce carbon emissions and the environmental impact of operational activities, enabling sustainability has always been central to the mission of cellular materials pioneer Zotefoams.
Commercialised over a century ago, the company’s unique three stage manufacturing process with its absence of chemical foaming agents is one of the most environmentally friendly foam production methods and its materials are widely used to save energy by insulating or save fuel by reducing weight.
It’s no surprise therefore that Zotefoams materials are in the spotlight as the industry looks for lightweighting solutions to reduce fuel burn.

Sustainability is a complex topic with different requirements for different sectors that should be reflected in the design, use and end-of-life phases of materials respectively. Certain industries are under scrutiny in terms of carbon footprint. Between consumers choosing to live more sustainably and companies having increasingly challenging targets in the pursuit of ‘net zero’, there’s a lot of demand for change.
In fact, the recent NetZero Readiness Report 2023 from KPMG reported that for certain industries, such as aviation, progress is slow and “2050 as the net zero target is pretty much tomorrow”, so the time for improvement is now.
The principle of sustainability has always been embedded at Zotefoams as we’ve sought to offer optimal material solutions for the benefit of society. This simple purpose statement informs everything that we do. In aviation, the biggest environmental impact by far is in the use-phase; therefore the biggest impact we can make is to produce the lightest material for each application to deliver maximum fuel savings.
Our materials are particularly appealing for aviation due to our unique manufacturing process, which uses only temperature, pressure and inert nitrogen as the expansion medium. This results in materials that are notably pure, consistent and durable compared to foams produced by other methods.

Indeed, Zotek F high‑performance foam is certified by NASA for its extremely low outgassing values. It is made of PVDF which is inherently inert and UV-resistant and which has excellent fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) properties, all essential properties for aviation.
Zotek F applications include components for environmental control systems (ducting, plenums), soft-touch trim, seat armrests, backshells and stowage lockers. With grades ranging from 30 to 150 kg/m3 and finishes from Flexible to Extra-Rigid, it is an extraordinarily versatile material. Replacing a traditional material, such as a solid thermoplastic or silicone rubber, with Zotek F can produce significant weight savings – up to 70 per cent in some instances.

Technifab aircraft window housing
featuring Zotek F OSU

Sustainable approach
With input from our specialist fabricators, we’re analytical and tactical in the applications that we pursue, because we want to guarantee to our customers that we really are offering the optimal material both environmentally and commercially.
For applications within an aircraft, the goal is always to produce a material that is lightest for purpose, while meeting all the requirements of this highly regulated sector. Zotefoams already produces the world’s lightest closed cell, crosslinked foam at just 15 kg/m3 and we’re constantly exploring how we might help airframe manufacturers and OEMs reduce aircraft weight further.

Lighter from the outset
Reducing the volume of polymer used has always been central to the Zotefoams proposition and our proprietary manufacturing method means that we are able to do this from the outset, with uniquely pure and durable foams that offer performance equivalent to significantly more dense foams made using chemical foaming agents.
This means we can offer a better performance to weight ratio, with recent tests showing that an 18 or 24 kg/m3 Azote polyolefin foam sheet can outperform a 30 kg/m3 competitor foam. This has made our Azote polyolefin foams range a material of choice in aviation for decades, with applications ranging from seat cushioning to galley insulation.
We’ve also designed fire-retardant (FR) grades specifically to meet aviation standards. On the subject of our process, it’s worth noting too that we use only nitrogen as a blowing agent, which is more environmentally friendly than chemical processes.

Modern foams offer weight savings

Material design
Our materials are versatile and customisable for each customer, thanks to the expertise of our specialist converters. They can be moulded into virtually anything and they can be combined with other materials as required. Within airline seats for example, our materials are laid up with a variety of materials, including other foams such as PU, fabric and adhesive. It is therefore vital that we offer the lowest fire, smoke and toxicity ratings so that the fabricator has leeway for tests on the overall assembly.
Longevity is an important element of sustainability, so it’s an advantage that our materials are extremely durable, with a lifespan matching that of commercial aircraft. The use-phase in aviation has by far the highest environmental impact due to fuel burn, so weight reduction without compromising safety is the most important contribution Zotefoams can make. That said, we are mindful of the increasing expectations around recyclability and are making considerable strides in this respect across our business.
For product protection, we are now offering polyolefin foam grades which incorporate 30 per cent recycled content and we also have routes through which foam can be re-purposed after its initial use, for example in agglomerated materials used as underlay for artificial sports pitches. We’re confident that in time, we will be able to offer recycled material across a broader range of applications, including those in aviation.

Foam future
Zotefoams has been producing foams for the aviation industry for over 80 years, initially using rubber, then polyolefins and more recently, engineering polymers, notably PVDF. We’re committed to saving weight and allowing design flexibility by delivering the same performance as heavier materials with no compromise on safety or performance. We welcome collaboration, so do get in touch if you want to discuss further.

For more information, email [email protected] or visit
Text supplied by Zotefoams

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