WHAT IS POLYURETHANE FOAM?
Flexible polyurethane foam helps in providing comfort to everyone, every day.
It is best known for supporting our body for a large part of the day, in mattresses, upholstered furniture and car seats. What is sometimes less known is that we enjoy the benefits of hundreds of polyurethane foam articles without even noticing. Its applications are virtually endless, ranging from small but essential items such as sponges in the kitchen, medical dressings to large filters and soundproofing systems that keep our environment clean and quiet.
Polyurethane is a leading member of the wide-ranging and highly diverse family of polymers or plastics. Polyurethane can be a solid or can have an open cellular structure, in which case it is called foam… and foams can be flexible or rigid.
As simple explanation, manufacturers make polyurethane foam by reacting polyols and diisocyanates, both products derived from crude oil. A series of additives are necessary to produce high-quality PU foam products, depending on the application the foam will be used for.
Each form of polyurethane foam has many uses:
EUROPUR represents the producers of flexible polyurethane foam blocks used in the applications presented on this website (bedding, furniture, automotive and many others).
Some flexible PU foams are also moulded, especially for use in the automotive sector, mainly for car seats. For more information on moulded foam applications, please visit the website of EURO-MOULDERS, the European Association of Manufacturers of Moulded Polyurethane Parts for the Automotive Industry.
Rigid foams are mainly used for thermal insulation of buildings and are in the remit of our partner organisation, PU Europe, which has developed a website specifically dedicated to answer all questions on building insulation with polyurethane foam.
Without us even noticing, many of the products that can be found in our homes and offices are (at least partly) made out of polyurethane foam. Foam is present in various comfort products, such as in mattresses and pillows we sleep on or in the upholstery of our sofas or (office) chairs. Due to its insulation, shock absorption and comfort properties, it is widely used for flooring underlay.
Out of total produced flexible polyurethane foam in Europe, around 75% is used in bedding and upholstery.
The mattress is the single most important element of every bedroom. People on average spend a third of their life on it and it is common knowledge that getting good rest is an important factor of an active and happy life. Buying a mattress is therefore essential when it comes to one’s health and well-being.
Depending on the material constituting the core, mattresses are generally classified in four categories: polyurethane foam, latex, springs and hybrid. Most mattresses do however contain layers of polyurethane foam in varying proportions, thanks to its unique properties for comfort and support. Mattresses produced in Europe contain between 2 and up to 30 kg of polyurethane foam.
Almost 50 million mattresses are produced in the European Union per annum. Of those, the market share of mattresses with a polyurethane foam core is estimated to be around 42%. This share is steadily growing, due to the outstanding properties of such mattresses.
But mattresses are not the only bedding product made with polyurethane foam. It is also used in pillows and cushions.
Different polyurethane foam qualities can be used in the same mattress or pillow in order to create products with the properties requested by customers: high resilience foam, memory foam, antibacterial foam, breathable foam… The combinations are virtually endless.
Selecting the right bedding products can sometimes be rather confusing. Much depends of course on personal preference. However, there are also product safety labels existing to help consumers make an informed choice.
One of them is CertiPUR, which attests that the polyurethane foam contained in the product conforms to EUROPUR’s stringent environment, health and safety standards for PU foam. The specifications of CertiPUR have been taken over in the EU Ecolabel criteria for mattresses, which is a label well-known to consumers. Other well-known private quality labels such as the Blue Angel or Oeko Tex 100 are also found on bedding products to allow consumers to make their choice with confidence.
Does your car have anything in common with a space shuttle? As a matter of fact, yes, they both heavily rely on polyurethane foam. As do planes, boats and trains.
The main applications of polyurethane foam in transport applications are for trimming, seats, headrests, (air-conditioning) filters and acoustic insulation. Depending on the application they are being used for, these foams have to comply with specific performance and emission standards.
Polyurethane foam can acquire very different characteristics in relation to density, softness, tensile strength, ball rebound, compression load deflection, etc. Because of its unique properties, polyurethane foam can be used in a variety of everyday products, like the ones below.
One would think that there is nothing as simple as a sponge. Not quite. Polyurethane foam sponges can be made in several varieties depending on what they will be used for. For example, fine pore hydrophilic sponges have a great level of absorbency and work best on smooth surfaces. Open, rugged style cleaning sponges are better for cracked surfaces. Some are anti-bacterial, others are abrasive. And of course, there are a multitude of shapes and colours available on the market.
One product we are using on a daily basis are kitchen sponges, made out of flexible polyurethane foam. They are an industry standard due to their excellent absorption of liquid and cleaning agents and because of their possibility of designing and combining with other materials (abrasive materials or textile)
Polyurethane foam is used widely by manufacturing industries for acoustic insulation, packaging, noise reduction, vibration and shock absorption, water and air sealing or filtration. Herewith just a few examples:
Foam packaging material has excellent shock absorption properties. Moreover, the shape of the foam packing material can be entirely customised to precisely fit the item to be transported. That helps ensuring that fragile items can reach consumers undamaged.
Polyurethane foam packaging is mainly used for wrapping electrical appliances, glass and ceramic products and for furniture of a higher price range.