If you think polyurethane foam is only good for building insulation, think again. As one of the most versatile chemical products on the market, foam supports a wide range of applications – a lot more than you might realize. You don’t need to look too far to find it either: chances are, there’s foam in your shoes, your car, even your fridge. In this post, we’ll be diving into polyurethane foam and taking a look at its popularity, as well as some exciting trends that could shape the future of foam applications.
The chemistry behind polyurethane – the most common type of foam – was initially discovered in the 1930’s. Although its use expanded in the following decades, foam didn’t take off in popularity on a global scale until the 1990’s and 2000’s, when big suppliers recognized increasing demand. One notable selling point is its versatility; foam can be formulated as hard or soft, which means you’d be just as likely to find it used to form rigid warehouse panels as you would soft furniture.
Another strength is its energy efficiency and sustainability. The insulating prowess of polyurethane foam means reduced energy consumption required to both heat and cool buildings. In the case of BASF’s spray polyurethane foam, sealing properties help improve condensation control and reduce allergens within the home.
The use of polyurethane foam spans multiple industries and products, including:
Foam plays an important role in a variety of car applications like seating, load floors, dashboards, armrests and headrests. It even improves your driving experience by minimizing stresses like potholes. BASF’s Cellasto®, a microcellular polyurethane foam, is particularly good at damping and absorbing energy peaks to give you a smooth ride. Other specialty foams are used for sound dampening and insulation.
In construction, polyurethane foam is widely used for insulation. Rigid polyurethane panels are commonly selected for warehouse exteriors due to their durability. Inside both commercial and residential buildings, spray foam insulation, like BASF's WALLTITE® or ENERTITE®, can be applied within the walls.
In previous decades, refrigerators depended on cool room temperatures and ice blocks to prevent food from spoiling. The fiberglass insulated models that followed were prone to excessive energy loss, caused by water leaking onto the freezer compartments. When refrigerators with polyurethane foam were developed as an alternative, they were recognized for their low thermal conductivity and reliability.
With the increased efficiency of polyurethane foam, manufacturers were able to thin the walls of their refrigerator units, offering more interior storage for food. Polyurethane became widely used for refrigerators by the mid-1980’s and remains the standard to this day. In fact, ISOPA (European Diisocyanate and Polyol Producers Association) estimates without polyurethane refrigeration, 50 percent of the world’s food would be lost to waste.
We believe that chemistry and polyurethane foams are enablers of sustainability targets.
Head of Marketing, Construction North America at BASF
In addition to typical refrigerator units, polyurethane foam is used in refrigerated “reefer” trucks, which support the industries that require temperature controlled cargo (such as food).
Polyurethane foam is uniquely versatile and provides a lot of design possibilities for furniture. It can be molded into any shape or size. The level of softness or firmness can also be adjusted. Since foam is both lightweight and resilient, it’s an ideal choice for decorative surface finishes. Standard polyurethane foam may be enhanced with additional compounds to create memory foam, which is denser. BASF has two mold flexible foams that can be used for this purpose – CosyPUR® and Elastoflex® W.
The cushioning properties of polyurethane foam extends beyond mattresses and footrests. It is also used to enhance comfort in shoes, including casual shoes, safety shoes and high-performance running shoes. One notable example is the “Energy Boost” running shoe from adidas, which was developed in close collaboration with BASF. The Energy Boost was manufactured with the world’s first expanded thermoplastic polyurethane (E-TPU), created by BASF. Called Infinergy®, the closed-cell particle foam is just as elastic as rubber, but significantly lighter, making it an ideal choice for footwear.
Foam for the Future
Polyurethane foam continues to drive innovation, which will increase comfort and quality of life. Better insulated homes, lighter cars (“light-weighting”), improved kitchen applications – “All these can happen with help of chemistry, in particular polyurethane,” explains Rohit Ghosh, Head of Marketing, Construction North America at BASF.
An increased focus on sustainability will also impact the development and use of polyurethane foam in the future. Blowing agents such as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC’s) – traditionally used to create foam – are being phased out in favor of more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Hydrofluoroolefins (HFO’s), designed for lower global warming potential are quickly becoming the replacement.
From building insulation to cars, furniture to footwear, polyurethane foam has been lauded for its expansive and diverse capabilities, as well as its positive environmental impact. “We believe that chemistry and polyurethane foams are enablers of sustainability targets,” says Ghosh, who anticipates bio-based foams and recyclability of polyurethane to become more prevalent in future. “At BASF, we’re constantly innovating…and we look forward to collaborating with our customers to develop new polyurethane solutions.”