Frequently asked questions on polyurethanes

What is polyurethane made of?

Polyurethane is derived from a chemical reaction of a diisocyanate with a polyol. Once this reaction has occurred, a substance is created that is safe and extremely versatile. It can have a number of diverse properties (resilience, flexibility, rigidity), depending on the choice of combined substances.

What are polyurethanes used for?

Polyurethanes have hundreds of different uses. The material is so versatile that it can be found in anything from roof insulation to surfboards. Because of its wide range of applications, the industry is constantly coming up with new ways of using the material, so the list is always growing. Learn more about where polyurethanes can be found here.

Is the polyurethane in my surfboard the same as that used in my mattress? How can one material be both hard and soft?

Essentially, all polyurethanes belong to the same chemical family. They are created by means of a chemical reaction combining a diisocyanate and a polyol. There is a wide range of these two substances that can be combined, rather like a tool kit. The properties of the finished product depend on the choice of starting materials.

What are the socio-economic statistics of the industry?

A summary of the key socio-economic parameters of the industry value chain, based on MDI, TDI and associated polyols, shows that it :

  • involves more than 23,000 companies
  • employs more than 360,000 workers
  • generates a market value of over €150 billion

In addition, associated but indirect activities involve more than 71,000 companies employing about 2,040,000 people. The majority of companies in the polyurethanes industry are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Are polyurethanes safe?

Yes, polyurethanes are safe.

Polyurethanes are derived from chemicals called diisocyanates and polyols that undergo a reaction to form an inert substance – polyurethane. Substantial research has shown polyurethanes to be safe and inert.

How many products can be made from polyurethanes?

Quite frankly, even we cannot be 100% sure! The material is so versatile that it can be found in anything from roof insulation to surfboards. As there are almost endless combinations of starting materials, the number of finished products appears to be limitless too. Because of its wide-ranging benefits, the industry is constantly coming up with new ways of using the material, so the list is always growing as polyurethanes continue to replace more traditional materials, such as metal and rubber in cars. Access our interactive tool showing some of the more common applications of the material, or learn more about where polyurethanes can be found.

How much polyurethane is produced every year?

Over two million tonnes of polyurethane is produced in the EU every year

How long has polyurethane been used in fridges?

Polyurethanes have been used in refrigerators since 1960.

What are the advantages of using polyurethanes in cars?

Polyurethanes in vehicles ensure comfort, safety, and durability as well as enhanced fuel efficiency, as they are lighter than alternative materials, thereby contributing to weight reduction and lower fuel consumption. Polyurethane is also extremely effective in sound insulation.

Can you recycle polyurethanes?

Yes, all polyurethanes can be recycled.

However, the most environmentally sound choice may not always be recycling. Recycling requires a great deal of energy and, in some cases, the most sensible option is energy recovery. In the EU, this is achieved through clean and careful incineration, whereby pollutants are filtered out and energy is produced as a result of the combustion process.

What percentage of polyurethane is recycled and in which products?

Unfortunately this varies per country and remains rather low due to inadequate facilities provided and very high costs. The preferred option is to cleanly incinerate and recover the energy of polyurethanes.

How is it efficient to incinerate polyurethane if many EU countries do not have the right facilities for energy recovery?

Things are improving. EU legislation is now in place to have incineration with energy recovery.

How do polyurethanes actively help fight climate change?

Polyurethanes help fight climate change in a variety of ways. For example, the material is an extremely efficient insulator and, when properly applied, it can improve the energy efficiency of buildings, thereby reducing the amount of carbon emissions created by heating. Another example is the use of polyurethanes in the manufacture of vehicles. Vehicle makers are increasingly turning to polyurethanes, not only because they look good and make vehicles more comfortable, but because they are very light compared to other materials, and therefore save on fuel and decrease emissions.

How can polyurethanes be sustainable if they are produced from a finite resource?

In a sentence, it is sustainable because polyurethanes uses less than 0.1% of oil consumed worldwide and saves up to 100 times more.

Polyurethanes contribute to sustainability through the applications it is used for, which, like in insulation and refrigeration, contribute to the conservation of energy. The long-term durability and high performance of polyurethanes means that this material has a longer life than other alternatives, making its contribution to energy conservation higher (relative to the energy consumption for its production).

How much energy could be saved through the use of polyurethane?

Experts estimate that insulation of buildings to optimal standards worldwide could reduce CO2 emissions by 20%. Approximately 51 million kWh of energy is saved each year in the EU by the use of polyurethane insulation.

How long does it take for polyurethane to save more energy than was needed for its production?

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.

What is the lifespan of polyurethane?

The lifespan of polyurethane will depend on the application and the type of use. Under normal use and regular wear and tear, we can expect a lifespan of:

  • 50+ years for building insulation
  • 25+ years for refrigerators
  • 20+ years for car bumpers

Polyurethane typically exceeds the life of the product it’s being used in.

Are polyurethanes expensive?

No, one of the great advantages of polyurethanes is their affordability. The reason their popularity is growing is because they have so many positive attributes, among which affordability is key. The price of polyurethanes should always be viewed relative to their performance and to what is saved during their lifetime. In terms of cost, polyurethanes are very competitive.

What are diisocyanates, MDI, TDI and polyols?

Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, often abbreviated to MDI, is an aromatic diisocyanate. Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is also an aromatic diisocyanate. Along with polyols, which are long alcoxyether chains, these chemicals form the building blocks of polyurethane.

What catalysts are used to make polyurethanes?

There is a wide variety; the most commonly used are metal salts or amine-based catalysts.

What flame retardants are used to make polyurethanes?

Phosphorous and/or halogen-containing compounds are used.

What blowing agents are used to make polyurethanes?

The most commonly used today are water and pentane. In the past, CFCs might have been used, but these have now been phased out.

Are polyurethanes resistant to heat?

Depending on the choice of starting materials, short-term heat resistance up to 250°C can be achieved.