Polyurethane (PUR and PU) is a polymer composed of organic units joined by carbamate (urethane) links. While most polyurethanes are thermosetting polymers that do not melt when heated, thermoplastic polyurethanes are also available.
Polyurethane polymers are traditionally and most commonly formed by reacting a di- or triisocyanate with a polyol. Since polyurethanes contain two types of monomers, which polymerise one after the other, they are classed as alternating copolymers. Both the isocyanates and polyols used to make polyurethanes contain, on average, two or more functional groups per molecule.
Polyurethanes are used in the manufacture of high-resilience foam seating, rigid foam insulation panels, microcellular foam seals and gaskets, durable elastomeric wheels and tires (such as roller coaster, escalator, shopping cart, elevator, and skateboard wheels), automotive suspension bushings, electrical potting compounds, high-performance adhesives, surface coatings and surface sealants, synthetic fibers (e.g., Spandex), carpet underlay, hard-plastic parts (e.g., for electronic instruments), condoms, and hoses.
Otto Bayer and his coworkers at IG Farben in Leverkusen, Germany, first made polyurethanes in 1937. The new polymers had some advantages over existing plastics that were made by polymerizing olefins or by polycondensation, and were not covered by patents obtained by Wallace Carothers on polyesters. Early work focused on the production of fibres and flexible foams and PUs were applied on a limited scale as aircraft coating during World War II. Polyisocyanates became commercially available in 1952, and production of flexible polyurethane foam began in 1954 using toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and polyester polyols. These materials were also used to produce rigid foams, gum rubber, and elastomers. Linear fibers were produced from hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI) and 1,4-Butanediol (BDO).
In 1956 DuPont introduced polyether polyols, specifically poly(tetramethylene ether) glycol, and BASF and Dow Chemical started selling polyalkylene glycols in 1957. Polyether polyols were cheaper, easier to handle and more water-resistant than polyester polyols, and became more popular. Union Carbide and Mobay, a U.S. Monsanto/Bayer joint venture, also began making polyurethane chemicals. In 1960 more than 45,000 metric tons of flexible polyurethane foams were produced. The availability of chlorofluoroalkane blowing agents, inexpensive polyether polyols, and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) allowed polyurethane rigid foams to be used as high-performance insulation materials. In 1967, urethane-modified polyisocyanurate rigid foams were introduced, offering even better thermal stability and flammability resistance. 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 exhibited an all-plastic car in Düsseldorf, Germany. Parts of this car, such as the fascia and body panels, were manufactured using a new process called reaction injection molding (RIM), in which the reactants were mixed and then injected into a mold. The addition of fillers, such as milled glass, mica, and processed mineral fibres, gave rise to reinforced RIM (RRIM), which provided improvements in flexural modulus (stiffness), reduction in coefficient of thermal expansion and better thermal stability. This technology was used to make the first plastic-body automobile in the United States, the Pontiac Fiero, in 1983. Further increases in stiffness were obtained by incorporating pre-placed glass mats into the RIM mold cavity, also known broadly as resin injection molding, or structural RIM.
Starting in the early 1980s, water-blown microcellular flexible foams were used to mold gaskets for automotive panels and air-filter seals, replacing PVC polymers. Polyurethane foams have gained popularity in the automotive realm, and are now used in high-temperature oil-filter applications.
Polyurethane foam (including foam rubber) is sometimes made using small amounts of blowing agents to give less dense foam, better cushioning/energy absorption or thermal insulation. In the early 1990s, because of their impact on ozone depletion, the Montreal Protocol restricted the use of many chlorine-containing blowing agents, such as trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11). By the late 1990s, blowing agents such as carbon dioxide, pentane, 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane (HFC-134a) and 1,1,1,3,3-pentafluoropropane (HFC-245fa) were widely used in North America and the EU, although chlorinated blowing agents remained in use in many developing countries. 1,1-Dichloro-1-fluoroethane (HCFC-141b) was introduced in early 2000s as an alternate blowing agent in developing nations.
Polyurethane products often are simply called “urethanes”, but should not be confused with ethyl carbamate, which is also called urethane. Polyurethanes neither contain nor are produced from ethyl carbamate.
Non-isocyanate based polyurethanes (NIPUs) have been developed to mitigate health and environmental concerns associated with the use of isocyanates to synthesize polyurethanes.