Tracing the roots of today’s polyurethane technologies

By Lee Salamone
Published: July 14th, 2014

Polyurethane has been used for nearly 75 years to make almost every element of our lives more safe and comfortable. Because of polyurethane's varied benefits, the product's rich history spreads across many industries - from furniture cushioning to spaceflight suits to each decade's newest and lightest electronic devices to the energy-saving refrigerator insulation that keeps food and beverages cold.

Since its beginnings, polyurethane and its applications have evolved to match advances in technology and manufacturing, as well as consumer demands. Today, polyurethanes are even found in many luxury items, including designer shoes, clothes, furniture and appliances.

Some great ideas really do start with a cold beer

Polyurethane rigid foam is used to insulate many kinds of containers. In fact, polyurethane rigid foam is the insulating material most widely used to keep the cold air inside refrigerators and freezers.

The origin of this idea traces back to 1948 when one of the first insulation applications of the product was a twin-walled insulated beer barrel.

Still today, this polyurethane product is used to keep the cold air inside refrigerators and freezers, permitting food to last longer and the appliances to use less energy as little of the cold air escapes. Because the material is such a great insulator, very little of it is needed. This leaves more storage space available inside appliances.

Polyurethane rigid insulating foam also makes major contributions to sustainability and eco-design by reducing the energy required to keep refrigerators and freezers cold, helping appliances meet energy standards and lowering energy costs for consumers.

ENERG-ICE named "Best of the Best"

Last month a technology project led by the Dow Polyurethanes Research & Development team was named one of the six "Best of the Best" Environment and Information projects of 2013 within the LIFE Environmental Program of the European Commission for reducing the environmental impact of energy-using products, such as cold appliances.

The project, known as ENERG-ICE, showcased the innovative PASCAL polyurethane foaming technology for manufacturing the insulation filling of cold appliances, such as refrigerators and freezers, using cyclopentane as a blowing agent. Because this innovation will be implemented during the design stage of appliances, it has the best opportunity to impact resource efficiency and sustainability for the entire lifetime of a product.

While led by the Dow Polyurethanes Research & Development team in Italy, the project was in partnership with Cannon Group companies, Afros and Crios, as well as Federchimica. The project was co-funded by the European Community.

Other early uses for polyurethanes

Since Dr. Otto Bayer first discovered the basic principle for the diisocyanate polyaddition process in 1937, polyurethanes have grown to become one of the most versatile products in history.

Rigid polyurethane foam made the mass production of aircraft to continue during the heart of the Second World War despite limited rubber resources because it was strong yet lightweight. Today, the product serves the same purpose to make the newest automobiles safer, faster and more fuel-efficient than they have ever been. 

Polyurethane was first used as an adhesive between rubber and glass in 1941. Now, polyurethane adhesives form the strong, durable and flexible bonds necessary for the world's largest construction projects, as well as items in our own homes like cabinets, furniture and carpet underlay.

It is obvious that polyurethane has evolved with society and technology, and we will continue to see many more advances in the future.

Lee Salamone is the Senior Director of the American Chemistry Council Center for the Polyurethanes Industry (CPI), a value chain organization that represents companies that manufacture the raw materials and machinery used to make all kinds of polyurethanes materials including those used in automotive applications. CPI promotes the use of polyurethanes in many end use markets and provides information on safe use of these materials. Visit us at www.polyurethanes.org and www.incrediblepolyurethane.com.

Editor's note: The author is a PlasticsToday contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer. 

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