What is Polyurethane?

The polymeric product known today as polyurethane makes up a family of polymers that differ from most other plastics in that there is no urethane monomer and the polymer is usually produced during the manufacture of a specific object. 

Polyurethanes are made by the exothermic responses in between alcohols with 2 or more reactive hydroxyl (- OH) groups per particle (diols, triols, polyols) and isocyanates that have more than one reactive isocyanate group (- NCO) per molecule (diisocyanates, polyisocyanates). For instance, a diisocyanate responds with a diol:

The group formed by the response between the two molecules is called the ‘urethane linkage’. It is an essential part of the polyurethane molecule.

Uses of polyurethanes

The physical homes, along with the chemical structure, of a polyurethane depend on the structure of the initial reactants, in particular the R1 and the R2 groups. The attributes of the polyols – relative molecular mass, the variety of reactive practical groups per molecule, and the molecular structure – influence the residential or commercial properties of the last polymer, and thus how it is utilized.

Figure 1 Uses of polyurethanes.

There is a basic distinction between the manufacture of a lot of polyurethanes and the manufacture of numerous other plastics. Polymers such as poly( ethene) and poly( propene) are produced in chemical plants and sold as granules, powders or films. Products are consequently made from them by warming the polymer, forming it under pressure and cooling it. The properties of such end-products are nearly entirely based on those of the initial polymer.

Polyurethanes, on the other hand are usually made directly into the final product. Much of the polyurethanes produced remain in the kind of large blocks of foam, which are cut up for usage in cushions, or for thermal insulation. The chemical reaction can likewise take place in moulds, leading to, for instance, a car bumper, a computer casing or a building panel. It might take place as the liquid reactants are sprayed onto a structure surface or covered on a fabric.

Figure 2 No other plastic enables itself to be made to determine in the same way as a polyurethane. Foams can be flexible or rigid, resistant to cold or particularly kind to skin. All of it boils down to the way in which the polyurethane ‘foundation’ are blended.

The combined effects of controlling the polymer residential or commercial properties and the density cause the existence of a really wide range of various products so that polyurethanes are utilized in many applications (Table 1).

Some examples of the primary reasons for picking polyurethanes as shown in Table 1.


cushioning low density, flexibility, resistance to


shoe sole flexibility, resistance to abrasion,

strength, durability

constructing panels thermal insulation, strength, long


artificial heart values flexibility and biostability

electrical equipment electrical insulation, strength, resistance to oils

Table 1 Properties and uses of polyurethanes

Polyurethanes can be stiff or rubbery at any density between, state 10 kg m-3 and 100 kg m-3. The general variety of residential or commercial properties offered to the designer and the producer is clearly very broad and this is shown in the many, very various, uses to which polyurethanes are put.

Annual production of polyurethanes.

World17.9 million tonnes1,2.

Europe3.5 million tonnes3.

1. In 2015. Expected to be 19.0 and 26.4 million tonnes in 2016 and 2021, respectively. Research and Markets, 2016.

2. It is estimated, at poresent, China has well over 50% of the overall capacity, HIS Markit, 2014.

3. Plastics – the Facts 2016 PlasticsEurope, 2016.

Manufacture of polyurethanes.

As polyurethanes are made from the response between an isocyanate and a polyol, the area is divided into three parts:.

a) production of isocyanates.

b) production of polyols.

c) production of polyurethanes.

( a) Production of isocyanates.

Although many aromatic and aliphatic polyisocyanates exist, two are of particular industrial significance. Each of them has variants and together they form the basis of about 95% of all the polyurethanes. They are:.

TDI (toluene diisocyanate or methylbenzene diisocyanate).

MDI (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate or diphenylmethane diisocyanate).

TDI was developed first however is now utilized mainly in the production of low density flexible foams for cushions.

The mixture of diisocyanates known as TDI includes two isomers:.

The starting product is methylbenzene (toluene). When it reacts with blended acid (nitric and sulfuric), 2 isomers of nitromethylbenzene (NMB) are the main products.

If this mix is nitrated further, a mix of dinitromethylbenzenes is produced. In industry they are known by their unimportant names, 2,4-dinitrotoluene and 2,6-dinitrotoluene (DNT). 80% is 2,4-DNT and 20% is 2,6-DNT:.

The mixture of dinitrobenzenes is then decreased to the matching amines:.

In turn, the amines, known commercially as Toluene Diamines or TDA, are heated with carbonyl chloride (phosgene) to produce the diisocyanates and this procedure can be performed in the liquid stage with chlorobenzene as a solvent at about 350 K:.

Alternatively, these responses are carried out in the gas stage by vaporizing the diamines at ca 600 K and mixing them with carbonyl chloride. This is an ecological and financial improvement over the liquid stage process as no solvent is required.

In either procedure, the reagent is the isomeric mix of the dinitrocompounds, 80% 2,4- and 20% 2,6-, so the item is a mixture of the diisocyanates in the same proportions.

It is pricey to produce this mixture in various proportions. It means cleansing the mix of the nitromethylbenzenes, NMB, by really mindful distillation.

It is more rewarding to produce various residential or commercial properties in the polyurethanes by using various polyols which respond with the 80:20 mixture of TDI to produce the polymers.

MDI is more complicated and allows the polyurethane producer more procedure and product versatility. The mixture of diisocyanates is generally utilized to make stiff foams.

The beginning materials are phenylamine (aniline) and methanal (formaldehyde) which respond together to form a mixture of amines, called MDA (methylenedianiline). This mix reacts with carbonyl chloride (phosgene) to produce MDI in a comparable method to the manufacture of TDI. MDI consists of the following diisocyanates:.

Figure 3 Isomers of MDI.

The term MDI describes the mixture of the 3 isomers in Figure 3. They can be separated by distillation.

( b) Production of polyols.

The polyols utilized are either hydroxyl-terminated polyethers (in about 90% of total polyurethane manufacture) or hydroxyl-terminated polyesters. They have been established to have the essential reactivity with the isocyanate that will be utilized and to produce polyurethanes with particular properties.

The option of polyol, particularly the variety of reactive hydroxyl groups per polyol molecule and the size and flexibility of its molecular structure, ultimately control the degree of cross-linking between particles. This has a crucial effect on the mechanical homes of the polymer.

An example of a polyol with two hydroxyl groups (ie a long chain diol) is one made from epoxypropane (propylene oxide), by interaction with propane-1,2- diol, (which itself is formed from epoxypropane, by hydrolysis):.

An example of a polyol which includes three hydroxyl groups is produced from propane-1,2,3- triol (glycerol) and epoxypropane:.

which may be represented as this idealised structure:.

Soya bean oil consists of triglycerides of long chain saturated and unsaturated carboxylic acids, which, after hydrogenation, can, on response with epoxypropane, form a mixture of polyols appropriate for the manufacture of a vast array of polyurethanes. Using these biopols suggests that at least part of the polymer is originated from renewable sources.

( c) Production of polyurethanes.

If the polyol has two hydroxyl groups and is mixed with either TDI or MDI, a linear polymer is produced. For example, a direct polyurethane is produced by response with a diisocyanate and the simplest diol, ethane-1,2- diol, a condensation polymerization takes place:.

A much used polyurethane is made from TDI and a polyol originated from epoxypropane:.

If the polyol has more than 2 reactive hydroxyl groups, surrounding long-chain particles end up being linked at intermediate points. These crosslinks produce a stiffer polymer structure with enhanced mechanical attributes which is made use of in the advancement of ‘rigid’ polyurethanes. Therefore a diisocyanate, such as MDI or TDI which responds with a polyol with 3 hydroxyl groups, such as one stemmed from propane-1,2,3- triol and epoxyethane, undergoes crosslinking and forms a rigid thermosetting polymer.

In addition to polyisocyanates and polyols, the manufacture of polyurethanes needs a variety of other chemicals to control the polyurethane-forming responses and to produce precisely the right homes in the end-product.

All useful polyurethane systems consist of some, however not always all, of those described in Table 2.

Figure 4 Broken limbs can now be enclosed in a polyester plaster, fertilized with a direct polyurethane. After the plaster has been wound around the limb, it is soaked in water, which produces cross-links between the polyurethane particles, producing a strong however light cast.

By kind authorization of Valmai Firth.

AdditivesReasons for usage.

catalyststo accelerate the reaction in between polyol and polyisocyanate.

cross-linking and chain-extending agentsto modify the structure of the polyurethane particles and to offer mechanical support to enhance physical properties (for example, including a polyisocyanate or polyol with more practical groups).

blowing agents.

surfactantsto create polyurethane as a foam.

to manage the bubble formation during the response and, hence, the cell structure of the foam.

pigmentsto create coloured polyurethanes for identification and aesthetic factors.

fillersto improve homes such as stiffness and to lower overall costs.

flame retardantsto lower flammability of completion item.

smoke suppressantsto decrease the rate at which smoke is created if the polyurethane is burnt.

plasticisersto reduce the solidity of the product.

Table 2 Additives utilized in the manufacture of polyurethanes.

Production procedure.

As an example, consider the manufacture of a moulded product that may otherwise be made from a thermoplastic polymer by injection moulding. To make it of polyurethane, it is needed to mix precisely the right masses of the two major components (polyisocyanate and polyol), which need to be liquids. The response starts instantly and provides the strong polymer. Depending upon the formulation, the catalysts used and the application, the reaction is typically finished in between a few seconds and some minutes. In this time, therefore, it is important to dispense the reacting liquid mix into the mould and likewise to clean the combined ‘blending and giving’ equipment ready for the next operation. The exothermic chemical reaction is finished within the mould and the produced short article can be taken from the mould instantly.

Foamed polyurethanes.

When the two liquids respond, a solid polymer is formed. The polymer may be flexible or rigid. However, it might also include bubbles of gas so that it is cellular – a foam.

When producing a foamed polyurethane, there are 2 possible methods to create a gas inside the reacting liquid mixture. The so-called chemical blowing uses water that might have been contributed to the polyol which reacts with a few of the polyisocyanate to develop carbon dioxide:.

Alternatively (physical blowing), a liquid with a low boiling point, for instance pentane, is blended into the polyol. The reaction is exothermic therefore, as it continues, the mixture warms up and the pentane vaporizes.

A small amount of air is distributed through a mix of polyisocyanate and polyol. This supplies nucleation seeds for the multitude of gas bubbles that are produced throughout the polymer. Heat makes the bubbles broaden up until the chemical reaction changes the liquid to solid polymer, and the offered gas pressure can not create any additional growth.

A shoe sole, for example, might be ‘blown’ to double the volume of the strong polymer. This procedure is so flexible that the expansion can be taken much further. In low-density foams for upholstery or thermal insulation, less than 3% of the overall volume is polyurethane. The gas has actually broadened the initial volume inhabited by the liquid by 30 to 40 times. In the case of cushions, only just enough strong polymer is needed to ensure that we can sit easily.

In thermal insulation, it is the gas caught in the cells which insulates. The polymer that confines the cells reduces the insulation efficiency, so it makes sense to have as little of it as possible.

Figure 5 During manufacture, the chair’s fabric cover is filled with a mixture of reactants which produce the polyurethane foam. The chair is provided its private shape by completing the seat surface area with the foam as a life-size doll beings in the chair.


In the final stages of the polyurethane-forming response, the mix becomes a gel with really efficient surface area adhesion. Hence polyurethanes can be utilized as adhesives. Equally important is the truth that polyurethanes, which are being produced as, for example, cushioning or insulation materials, can be bonded to surface area products without the intro of different adhesives.

Flexible foam and material can produce a composite cushion or rigid foam and sheet building products (e.g. plasterboard, steel sheet, plywood) can supply composite structure insulation panels.

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