What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethanes play a key role in society, yet most people are unaware of what they are or where they are used.

Polyurethanes are all around us. We sit on them, walk on them, and even sleep on them. They contribute to improving our living standards at home, work, throughout industry and in the leisure sector.
The most versatile of any group of plastics, polyurethanes are capable of an almost infinite number of variations in chemistry, structure and application.

Rigid polyurethane foam is a good insulant because it consists of 92-98% of closed cells. Only 2-8% of the foam depending on the density is solid polyurethane polymer. The closed cells are filled with insulating gases that are released by blowing agents during the manufacture of foam. The cell gas composition can be influenced by different blowing agents. Blowing agents that have a lower vapour thermal conductivity will lower the foam thermal conductivity. The insulating gas accounts for 60-65% of the final foam thermal conductivity.

Polyurethane foam’s popularity is based on these outstanding insulation properties, which prevent heat loss, or alternatively maintain temperatures in cold environments to prevent freezing or cracking. These energy conservation qualities improve the overall cost efficiency of customers’ networks and pipeline systems.

In the table below, the thermal conductivity at 50°C is given for a number of pipe insulation materials, along with the relative insulation thickness at an equal heat loss. Polyurethane foam is clearly the most effective material. Further advantages are that the polyurethane foam adheres well to both the service pipe and the casing pipe. As a result of the closed cell structure of the foam, penetration of water in the foam and along the length of the pipe is inhibited should the casing pipe be damaged.


The pioneering work on polyurethane polymers was conducted by Otto Bayer and his co-workers in 1937 at the laboratories of I.G. Farben in Leverkusen, Germany. They recognized that using the polyaddition principle to produce polyurethanes from liquid diisocyanates and liquid polyether or polyester diols seemed to point to special opportunities, especially when compared to already existing plastics that were made by polymerizing olefins, or by polycondensation. The new monomer combination also circumvented existing patents obtained by Wallace Carothers on polyesters. Initially, work focused on the production of fibres and flexible foams. With development constrained by World War II (when PUs were applied on a limited scale as aircraft coating), it was not until 1952 that polyisocyanates became commercially available.

Commercial production of flexible polyurethane foam began in 1954, based on toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and polyester polyols. The invention of these foams (initially called imitation Swiss cheese by the inventors) was thanks to water accidentally introduced in the reaction mix. These materials were also used to produce rigid foams, gum rubber, and elastomers. Linear fibres were produced from hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI) and 1, 4-butanediol (BDO).

The first commercially available polyether polyol, poly (tetramethylene ether) glycol, was introduced by DuPont in 1956 by polymerizing tetrahydrofuran. Less expensive polyalkylene glycols were introduced by BASF and Dow Chemical the following year, 1957. These polyether polyols offered technical and commercial advantages such as low cost, ease of handling, and better hydrolytic stability; and quickly supplanted polyester polyols in the manufacture of polyurethane goods. Another early pioneer in PUs was the Mobay corporation.

In 1960 more than 45,000 tons of flexible polyurethane foams were produced. As the decade progressed, the availability of chlorofluoroalkane blowing agents, inexpensive polyether polyols, and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) heralded the development and use of polyurethane rigid foams as high performance insulation materials. Rigid foams based on polymeric MDI (PMDI) offered better thermal stability and combustion characteristics than those based on TDI. In 1967, urethane modified polyisocyanurate rigid foams were introduced, offering even better thermal stability and flammability resistance to low density insulation products. Also during the 1960s, automotive interior safety components such as instrument and door panels were produced by back-filling thermoplastic skins with semi-rigid foam.

In 1969, Bayer AG exhibited an all plastic car in Dusseldorf, Germany. Parts of this car were manufactured using a new process called RIM, Reaction Injection Molding. RIM technology uses high-pressure impingement of liquid components followed by the rapid flow of the reaction mixture into a mold cavity. Large parts, such as automotive fascia and body panels, can be molded in this manner. Polyurethane RIM evolved into a number of different products and processes. Using demine chain extenders and trimerization technology gave poly (urethane urea), poly (urethane isocyanurate), and polyurea RIM. The addition of fillers, such as milled glass, mica, and processed mineral fibres gave arise to RRIM, reinforced RIM, which provided improvements in flexural modulus (stiffness) and thermal stability. This technology allowed production of the first plastic-body automobile in the United Sates, the Pontiac Fiero, in 1983. Further improvements in flexural modulus were obtained by incorporating preplaced glass mats into the RIM mold cavity, also known as SRIM, or structural RIM.

Starting in the early 1980s, water-blown microcellular flexible foam was used to mold gaskets for panel and radial seal air filters in the automotive industry. Since then, increasing energy prices and the desire to eliminate PVC plastisol from automotive applications have greatly increased market share. Costlier raw materials are offset by a significant decrease in part weight and in some cases, the elimination of metal end caps and filter housings. Highly filled polyurethane elastomers, and more recently unfilled polyurethane foams are now used in high-temperature oil filter applications.

Polyurethane foam (including foam rubber) is often made by adding small amounts of volatile materials, so-called blowing agents, to the reaction mixture. These simple volatile chemicals yield important performance characteristics, primarily thermal insulation. In the early 1990s, because of their impact on ozone depletion, the Montreal Protocol led to the greatly reduced use of many chlorine-containing blowing agents, such as trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11). Other haloalkanes, such as the hydrochlorofluorocarbon 1,1-dichloro-1-fluoroethane (HCFC-141b), were used as interim replacements until their phase out under the IPPC directive on greenhouse gases in 1994 and by the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) directive of the EU in 1997 (See: Haloalkanes). By the late 1990s, the use of blowing agents such as carbon dioxide, pentane, 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane (HFC-134a) and 1,1,1,3,3-pentafluoropropane (HFC-245fa) became more widespread in North America and the EU, although chlorinated blowing agents remained in use in many developing countries.

Building on existing polyurethane spray coating technology and polyetheramine chemistry, extensive development of two-component polyurea spray elastomers took place in the 1990s. Their fast reactivity and relative insensitivity to moisture make them useful coatings for large surface area projects, such as secondary containment, manhole and tunnel coatings, and tank liners. Excellent adhesion to concrete and steel is obtained with the proper primer and surface treatment. During the same period, new two-component polyurethane and hybrid polyurethane-polyurea elastomer technology was used to enter the marketplace of spray-in-place load bed liners. This technique for coating pickup truck beds and other cargo bays creates a durable, abrasion resistant composite with the metal substrate, and eliminates corrosion and brittleness associated with drop-in thermoplastic bed liners.

The use of polyols derived from vegetable oils to make polyurethane products began garnering attention beginning around 2004, partly due to the rising costs of petrochemical feedstocks and partially due to an enhanced public desire for environmentally friendly green products. One of the most vocal supporters of these polyurethanes made using natural oil polyols is the Ford Motor Company.

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