What is polyurethane?

We use polyurethanes in one form or another every day – at home, in our offices and cars, for sport and leisure activities and on holiday.

Polyurethane is a plastic material, which exists in various forms. It can be tailored to be either rigid or flexible, and is the material of choice for a broad range of end-user applications such as:

  • insulation of refrigerators and freezers
  • building insulation
  • cushioning for furniture
  • mattresses
  • car parts
  • coatings
  • adhesives
  • rollers and tyres
  • composite wood panels
  • shoe soles
  • sportswear

Polyurethanes are versatile, modern and safe. They are used in a wide variety of applications to create all manner of consumer and industrial products that play a crucial role in making our lives more convenient, comfortable and environmentally friendly.

Read more about polyurethanes and their applications.

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History

Polyurethanes were invented back in the 1930s by Professor Dr. Otto Bayer (1902-1982). There are various types of polyurethanes, which look and feel very different from each other. They are used in a diversity of products, from coatings and adhesives to shoe soles, mattresses and foam insulation. However, the basic chemistry of each type is essentially the same.

Widespread use of polyurethanes was first seen during World War II, when they were utilised as a replacement for rubber, which at the time was expensive and hard to obtain. During the war, other applications were developed, largely involving coatings of different kinds, from aeroplane finishes to resistant clothing.

By the 1950s, polyurethanes were being used in adhesives, elastomers and rigid foams and, in the latter part of the same decade, flexible cushioning foams similar to those used today.

Subsequent decades saw many further developments and today we are surrounded by polyurethane applications in every aspect of our everyday lives. While polyurethane is a product that most people are not overly familiar with, as it is generally ‘hidden’ behind covers or surfaces made of other materials, it would be hard to imagine life without polyurethanes.

Science and Research on Polyurethanes

Polyurethanes are plastic polymers made by combining diisocyanates ( TDI and MDI) and polyols. There are literally hundreds of different types of polyurethanes and each is made in a slightly different way:

  • Carbon dioxide is used as a blowing agent to create the soft, comfortable feel of a mattress or sofa. The more blowing agent is used, the softer the resulting foam.
  • In rigid foams, a gas such as pentane is “trapped” in the closed cells of the foam, optimising its insulation capacity.
  • Rollerblade wheels, on the other hand, do not require a blowing agent and instead have a dense and hardwearing consistency.

Polyurethanes and energy efficiency

Because polyurethanes are so versatile and known to be excellent insulators, they offer many solutions to the challenges of energy conservation and eco-design. The polyurethanes industry is always seeking to reduce its impact on the environment and is currently exploring ways of increasing the energy efficiency of manufacturing processes and creating end products that can be used to save energy, such as building insulation. These products help families and businesses reduce their energy bills, while at the same time helping to protect the environment. The future is likely to bring further improvements in production processes, resulting in less expensive and even more environmentally friendly polyurethanes.

Read more about energy conservation and eco-design

Did you know

There are lots of interesting facts about polyurethanes you may not know, but you can broaden your knowledge by taking a look at the selected list.

There are also links below to informative fact sheets, which explain various aspects of the product in greater detail.

Facts and figures on polyurethanes

  • 1.6cm-thick polyurethane insulation has the same insulation efficiency as a 1.34m-thick concrete wall!
  • since 2003, all polyurethane foams have been HCFC-free in the EU.
  • the polyurethane industry employs over 360.000 people in the EU.
  • the first polyurethane surfboard was made and used in the 1950s.
  • because of the introduction of polyurethanes into refrigerators, models designated A++ today are 60% more efficient than refrigerators 15 years ago.
  • in 1973, roller skates were improved and popularised by the introduction of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) wheels and, later, TPU boots. Today they are known as Rollerblades.
  • the amount of energy used to produce enough polyurethane insulation for one house is subsequently saved in the space of just one year thanks to the insulation provided.
  • polyurethane is often referred to as PU or PUR.
  • since 1995, all polyurethane foams have been CFC-free in the EU. Since 2003, they have been HCFC free as well
  • that renewable raw materials can be used to produce foams for several applications such as mattresses
  • more and more dams and dykes are protected against storms with a PU-based solution

360.000

the polyurethane industry employs over 360,000 people in the EU.

60

Because of the introduction of polyurethanes into refrigerators, models designated A++ today are 60% more efficient than refrigerators 15 years ago.

100

The amount of energy used to produce enough polyurethane insulation for one house is subsequently saved in the space of just one year thanks to the insulation provided.