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).
Polyurethanes are in the class of compounds called reaction polymers, which include epoxies, unsaturated polyesters, and phenolics. Polyurethanes are produced by reacting an isocyanate containing two or more isocyanate groups per molecule (R−(N=C=O)n) with a polyol containing on average two or more hydroxyl groups per molecule (R′−(OH)n) in the presence of a catalyst or by activation with ultraviolet light.
Isocyanates used to make polyurethane have two or more isocyanate groups on each molecule. The most commonly used isocyanates are the aromatic diisocyanates, toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, MDI.
TDI and MDI are generally less expensive and more reactive than other isocyanates. Industrial grade TDI and MDI are mixtures of isomers and MDI often contains polymeric materials. They are used to make flexible foam (for example slabstock foam for mattresses or molded foams for car seats), rigid foam (for example insulating foam in refrigerators) elastomers (shoe soles, for example), and so on. The isocyanates may be modified by partially reacting them with polyols or introducing some other materials to reduce volatility (and hence toxicity) of the isocyanates, decrease their freezing points to make handling easier or to improve the properties of the final polymers.
Isocyanates are very reactive materials. This makes them useful in making polymers but also requires special care in handling and use. The aromatic isocyanates, diphenylmethane diisocyanate (MDI) or toluene diisocyanate (TDI) are more reactive than aliphatic isocyanates, such as hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI) or isophorone diisocyanate (IPDI). Most of the isocyanates are difunctional, that is they have exactly two isocyanate groups per molecule. An important exception to this is polymeric diphenylmethane diisocyanate, which is a mixture of molecules with two, three, and four or more isocyanate groups. In cases like this the material has an average functionality greater than two, commonly 2.7.
Aliphatic and cycloaliphatic isocyanates are used in smaller quantities, most often in coatings and other applications where color and transparency are important since polyurethanes made with aromatic isocyanates tend to darken on exposure to light. The most important aliphatic and cycloaliphatic isocyanates are 1,6-hexamethylene diisocyanate (HDI),1-isocyanato-3 isocyanatomethyl-3,5,5-trimethyl-cyclohexane (isophorone diisocyanate, IPDI), and 4,4′-diisocyanato dicyclohexylmethane, (H12MDI or hydrogenated MDI).
Polyols can be polyether polyols, which are made by the reaction of epoxides with an active hydrogen containing compounds. Polyester polyols are made by the polycondensation of multifunctional carboxylic acids and polyhydroxyl compounds. They can be further classified according to their end use. Higher molecular weight polyols (molecular weights from 2,000 to 10,000) are used to make more flexible polyurethanes while lower molecular weight polyols make more rigid products.
Polyols are polymers in their own right and have on average two or more hydroxyl groups per molecule. Polyether polyols are mostly made by co-polymerizing ethylene oxide and propylene oxide with a suitable polyol precursor. Polyester polyols are made similarly to polyester polymers. The polyols used to make polyurethanes are mixtures of similar molecules with distinct molecular weights, which is why the “average functionality” is often mentioned. Despite being complex mixtures, industrial grade polyols are sufficiently well controlled to produce polyurethanes with consistent properties. The length of the polyol chain and the functionality that contribute much to the properties of the final polymer. Polyols used to make rigid polyurethanes have molecular weights in the hundreds, while those used to make flexible polyurethanes have molecular weights up to ten thousand or more.
Chain extenders and cross linkers
Chain extenders (f = 2) and cross linkers (f ≥ 3) are low molecular weight hydroxyl and amine terminated compounds that play an important role in the polymer morphology of polyurethane fibers, elastomers, adhesives, and certain integral skin and microcellular foams. The elastomeric properties of these materials are derived from the phase separation of the hard and soft copolymer segments of the polymer, such that the urethane hard segment domains serve as cross-links between the amorphous polyether (or polyester) soft segment domains. This phase separation occurs because the mainly nonpolar, low melting soft segments are incompatible with the polar, high melting hard segments. The soft segments, which are formed from high molecular weight polyols, are mobile and are normally present in coiled formation, while the hard segments, which are formed from the isocyanate and chain extenders, are stiff and immobile. Because the hard segments are covalently coupled to the soft segments, they inhibit plastic flow of the polymer chains, thus creating elastomeric resiliency. Upon mechanical deformation, a portion of the soft segments are stressed by uncoiling, and the hard segments become aligned in the stress direction. This reorientation of the hard segments and consequent powerful hydrogen bonding contributes to high tensile strength, elongation, and tear resistance values. The choice of chain extender also determines flexural, heat, and chemical resistance properties. The most important chain extenders are ethylene glycol, 1,4-butanediol (1,4-BDO or BDO), 1,6-hexanediol, cyclohexane dimethanol and hydroquinone bis(2-hydroxyethyl) ether (HQEE). All of these glycols form polyurethanes that phase separate well and form well defined hard segment domains, and are melt processable. They are all suitable for thermoplastic polyurethanes with the exception of ethylene glycol, since its derived bis-phenyl urethane undergoes unfavorable degradation at high hard segment levels. Diethanolamine and triethanolamine are used in flex molded foams to build firmness and add catalytic activity. Diethyltoluenediamine is used extensively in RIM, and in polyurethane and polyurea elastomer formulations.
Polyurethane catalysts can be classified into two broad categories, basic and acidic amine. Tertiary amine catalysts function by enhancing the nucleophilicity of the diol component. Alkyl tin carboxylates, oxides and mercaptides oxides function as mild Lewis acids in accelerating the formation of polyurethane. As bases, traditional amine catalysts include triethylenediamine (TEDA, also called DABCO, 1,4-diazabicyclo[2.2.2]octane), dimethylcyclohexylamine (DMCHA), dimethylethanolamine (DMEA), and bis-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)ether, a blowing catalyst also called A-99. A typical Lewis acidic catalyst is dibutyltin dilaurate. The process is highly sensitive to the nature of the catalyst and is also known to be autocatalytic.
Factors affecting catalyst selection include balancing three reactions: urethane (polyol+isocyanate, or gel) formation, the urea (water+isocyanate, or “blow”) formation, or the isocyanate trimerization reaction (e.g., using potassium acetate, to form isocyanurate rings). A variety of specialized catalysts have been developed.
Surfactants are used to modify the characteristics of both foam and non-foam polyurethane polymers. They take the form of polydimethylsiloxane-polyoxyalkylene block copolymers, silicone oils, nonylphenol ethoxylates, and other organic compounds. In foams, they are used to emulsify the liquid components, regulate cell size, and stabilize the cell structure to prevent collapse and sub-surface voids. In non-foam applications they are used as air release and antifoaming agents, as wetting agents, and are used to eliminate surface defects such as pin holes, orange peel, and sink marks.