What is polyurethane?

Every day, we use polyurethanes in some way or another – in our homes, offices, cars, and for leisure and sport activities, as well as on vacation.

There are many forms of polyurethane, which is a type of plastic material. You can make it rigid or flexible to suit your needs. This makes polyurethane the ideal material for many end-user applications, such as:

  • Insulation of freezers and refrigerators
  • Building insulation
  • Cushioning for furniture
  • mattresses
  • Car parts
  • Coatings
  • Adhesives
  • Rollers and tyres
  • Composite wood panels
  • Soles for shoes
  • Sportswear

Polyurethanes can be used in a variety of applications and are safe and modern. Polyurethanes are versatile and safe. They can be used to make a variety of industrial and consumer products.

Professor Otto Bayer (1902-1982) invented polyurethane in the 1930s. There are many types of polyurethane that look and feel different. Polyurethane is used in many products including coatings, adhesives, shoes soles, mattresses, and foam insulation. The basic chemistry of all types is the same.

Polyurethane was first used as a substitute for rubber during World War II. They were expensive and difficult to find at that time. Other applications were also developed during World War II, mostly involving coatings of various types, from aircraft finishes to clothing that is resistant.

Polyurethane was used in adhesives and elastomers in the 1950s. Later, flexible cushioning foams that were similar to the ones used today were developed.

Subsequent decades saw many further developments and today we are surrounded by polyurethane applications in every aspect of our everyday lives. Polyurethane is not a common product, but it is often ‘hidden’ behind other materials or covers. It would be difficult to imagine life without it.

Research and Science on Polyurethanes

Polyurethane can be described as plastic polymers that are made from combining polyols and diisocyanates ( TDI, MDI ). There are hundreds of types of polyurethane, each made in a different way.


    • To create the soft and comfortable feel of a sofa or mattress, carbon dioxide is used to blow it. The foam will be more soft if it is used with more blowing agents.
    • A rigid foam can trap pentane in its closed cells, maximising its insulation ability.
    • Rollerblade wheels on the other side don’t require any blowing agents and instead have a dense, hardwearing consistency.
      Polyurethanes, energy efficiencyPolyurethanes offer many solutions for eco-design and energy conservation because they are versatile and excellent insulators. Polyurethanes are constantly looking for ways to minimize their impact on the environment. They are currently investigating ways to increase the energy efficiency of manufacturing processes, and create end products that can save energy like building insulation. These products can help businesses and families reduce their energy costs while also protecting the environment. Future production methods will be improved, which could lead to more affordable and environmentally-friendly polyurethanes.
      Did you know?
      You may not be aware of many interesting facts about polyurethane, but you can expand your knowledge by looking at the following list.You will also find links to informative fact sheets that provide more detail on various aspects of this product.
      Information and figures about polyurethanes
    • Insulation made of polyurethane insulation 1.6cm thick has the same insulation performance as concrete walls that are 1.34m thick!
    • All polyurethane foams are HCFC-free within the EU since 2003.
    • The EU’s polyurethane sector employs more than 360.000 people.
    • In the 1950s, the first surfboard made of polyurethane was used.
    • Models today designated A++ are 60% more efficient because of the inclusion of polyurethane in refrigerators.
    • In 1973, the introduction of thermoplastic polyurethane wheels (TPU) and later TPU boots made roller skates more popular. They are now known as Rollerblades.
    • Insulation saves energy by reducing the amount of polyurethane insulation needed to make one house.
    • Polyurethane is also known as PU and PUR.
    • All polyurethane foams are CFC-free in Europe since 1995. They have also been HCFC-free since 2003.
    • Many applications can use foams made from renewable materials, such as mattresses.
    • A PU-based solution is protecting more dams and dikes from storms.



Dr. Otto Bayer discovers basic polyurethane chemistry I.G. Farben


First introduction of rigid foam into an aircraft


Adhesive for rubber, metal, and glass


First insulation application – a beer barrel


Polyurethane rubber for vulcanisation


Synthetic leather is made from polyurethane soles for shoes


Cushions made of polyurethane foam


Spandex fiber introduced for clothing pu


NASA has developed space suits with a polyurethane liner for the Mercury mission.


Panels for sandwich-building steel panels


Integral skin for the sole of shoes and armrests


The K67, the first all-plastic car with interiors made of polyurethane, is on display in Germany


For increased safety, use bumpers on your automobile


Imitation wood, Orthopaedics and Medical Applications


Track surface for the Munich Olympic Stadium


Roller skates are now possible with the help of thermoplastic polyurethane wheels.


Bob Evans invented the polyurethane “Forcefin” flippers that can be used for many underwater activities.


Invention of spray insulation for buildings


Sandwich panels made from polyurethane-based materials were first introduced


Polyurethane is used to make surfboards


Passenger safety in cars with energy-absorbing foam


For passenger safety in cars, energy-absorbing foam


First football to contain polyurethane materials


The first passive house constructed in Darmstadt (Germany) using polyurethane-insulated window frames


Tempur-Pedic is the first to produce a memory foam mattress made from polyurethane in the USA


NASA’s Endeavour spacecraft makes its first flight. The shuttle uses polyurethane for external fuel tanks protection


Thin wall medical tubing, i.e. catheters


To enhance performance, bicycle tires contain polyurethane material.


To improve performance, car tires contain polyurethane material.


All polyurethane foams are HCFC-free in Europe. Since 2003


Elastocoast polyurethane adhesive system that reinforces existing dykes.


After a 10-year clinical trial, Syncardia, a total artificial heart with polyurethane ventricles was approved for use.


Ballast bed with partially foamed material for rail vehicles. This reduces noise pollution and maintenance costs.


Swimsuits made of 100% high-speed, polyurethane are ideal for world-class swimmers.


The porous Elastopave pavement allows air and water to move through it


Cars with scratches can be repaired by self-curing coating


The first solar-powered plane that has flown around the globe; polyurethanes are vital in this light-weight frame.


Apple unveils the smart cover made of polyurethane for its iPad 2


A robotic’smart bird’ has been developed that can fly with a bird-like motion. It is made of polyurethane, fibre-glass casing and nylon.

MARCH 2011

Airbus, which uses polyurethane technology for their aeroplanes has reached their 10,000th order

MAY 2011,

Formula One’s top tracks use polyurethane safety block to replace tires

JUNE 2011

For e-cars, lightweight designs and high-performance insulation are made of polyurethane foam.

JULY 2011

In Germany, the first plant to use carbon dioxide as an inert for polyurethane has been opened

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