Polyurethanes: History, Industry Statistics, and Applications


Polyurethanes are one of the most versatile materials today. Their many uses range from flexible foam in upholstered furniture to rigid foam as insulation in walls and roofs to thermoplastic polyurethane used in medical devices and footwear to coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers used on floors and automotive interiors. To learn more about polyurethanes, see the information below.


It doesn’t matter where you look, you will most likely find polyurethane. Polyurethanes can be a found in liquid coatings and paints, tough elastomers such as roller blade wheels, rigid insulation, soft flexible foam, elastic fiber, or as an integral skin. No matter how polyurethane is transformed, the underlying chemistry is the result of one man’s genius, Prof. Dr. Otto Bayer (1902-1982). Prof. Dr. Otto Bayer is recognized as the “father” of the polyurethane industry for his invention of the basic diisocyanate polyaddition process.

The origin of polyurethane dates back to the beginning of World War II where it is was first developed as a replacement for rubber. The versatility of this new organic polymer and its ability to substitute for scarce materials, spurred numerous applications. During World War II, polyurethane coatings were used for the impregnation of paper and the manufacture of mustard gas resistant garments, high-gloss airplane finishes and chemical and corrosion resistant coatings to protect metal, wood and masonry.

By the end of the war, polyurethane coatings were being manufactured and used on an industrial scale and could be custom formulated for specific applications. By the mid-50’s, polyurethanes could be found in coatings and adhesives, elastomers and rigid foams. It wasn’t until the late-50’s, that comfortable cushioning flexible foams were commercially available. With the development of a low-cost polyether polyol, flexible foams opened the door to the upholstery and automotive applications we know today.

Formulations, additives and processing techniques continued to be developed such as reinforced and structural moldings for exterior automotive parts and one-component systems. Today, polyurethanes can be found in virtually everything we touch – our desks, chairs, cars, clothes, footwear, appliances, beds, the insulation in our walls, roof and moldings on our homes.

How Is Polyurethane Made?

Polyurethanes are formed by reacting a polyol (an alcohol with more than two reactive hydroxyl groups per molecule) with a diisocyanate or a polymeric isocyanate in the presence of suitable catalysts and additives.

Because a variety of diisocyanates and a wide range of polyols can be used to produce polyurethane, a broad spectrum of materials can be produced to meet the needs of specific applications.

Most polyurethanes are thermoset materials; they cannot be melted and reshaped as thermoplastic materials can be.

Polyurethanes exist in a variety of forms including flexible foams, rigid foams, chemical-resistant coatings, specialty adhesives and sealants, and elastomers.

Rigid polyurethane foams are used as insulation for buildings, water heaters, refrigerated transport, and commercial and residential refrigeration. These foams are also used for flotation and for energy management.

Flexible polyurethane foams are used as cushioning for carpet and in upholstered furniture, mattresses, and automobiles. They are also used for packaging.

Polyurethane adhesives and sealants are used in construction, transportation, marine, and other applications where their high strength, moisture resistance and durability are required.

The term “polyurethane elastomers” includes such diverse products as thermoplastic polyurethane, cast elastomers and Reaction Injection Molded (RIM) products. These materials go into a wide variety of applications from footwear and skate wheels to machinery housings, to athletic tracks to electronic media.

Polyurethane Industry Statistics

The Alliance for the Polyurethanes Industry (API) serves as a research arm and data clearinghouse for API member companies. API technical experts, working in conjunction with the American Plastic Council’s Plastics Industry Producers’ Statistics Group (PIPS), regularly produce a variety of data and reports for the polyurethane industry.

Periodic Reports

A number of statistical reports have long been regarded as important sources of data on polyurethanes, including:

  • Production and Sales & Captive Use of Isocyanate Resins, a monthly report on isocyanate resins
  • Production and Sales & Captive Use of Polyether Urethane Polyols, a monthly report on polyether urethane polyols
  • Production and Sales & Captive Use of Thermoplastic Polyurethane Products, a quarterly report on thermoplastic polyurethane products

Note: These reports are available at no additional cost to API members and participants in the data collection.

API End-Use Market Survey

To assist polyurethane manufacturers, machinery manufacturers, lobbyists and other industry segments in vital decision-making, every two years, API conducts an end-use polyurethanes industry market survey. The objective of the study is to determine polyurethane consumption in the NAFTA region (U.S., Canada and Mexico), including market size and segmentation by polyurethane product type and end-use market. Historic trends by end-use market segment, as well as product usage, are also presented.

To ensure the accuracy and timeliness of the data gathered and analyzed for the API End-Use Market Survey, we conduct in-depth telephone and face-to-face interviews with key industry participants, including:

  • chemical suppliers
  • systems suppliers/formulators
  • chemical distributors
  • systems distributors
  • polyurethane producers
  • end users

In all fieldwork, API applies a multi-faceted approach to develop and verify market findings. This allows for a more accurate overall assessment, as well as detailed analysis by segment. Market segments analyzed include:

  • flexible polyurethane foams
  • rigid polyurethane foams
  • thermoplastic polyurethane foams
  • coatings
  • adhesives
  • sealants
  • elastomers
  • binders
  • reaction injection molding
  • polyurethane dispersions

Note: The API End-Use Market Survey on the U.S., Canada and Mexico is available for sale both to API members and the public.

  • Publication price: $1,200 USD API members/$1,500 USD non-members
  • Shipping/Handling: $10 USD for Shipments in the U.S., $50 USD for Shipments outside the U.S.



1. Flexible Foam

Flexible polyurethane foam’s versatility of form and function can be seen in bedding, furniture, automotive interiors, carpet underlay and packaging. Foam can be created in almost any variety of shape and firmness. In addition, it’s light, durable, supportive and comfortable.

2. Rigid Foam

Rigid polyurethane and polyisocyanurate foams form one of the world’s most popular, energy-efficient and versatile insulations. It significantly cuts fuel and construction costs while making commercial and residential properties safer, better utilized and more comfortable around the globe.

3. Thermoplastic Polyurethane

Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) offers a myriad of physical property combinations and processing applications. It’s highly elastic, flexible and resistant to abrasion, impact and weather. TPU’s can be colored or fabricated in a wide variety of methods, and their use increases a product’s overall durability.

4. Coatings, Adhesives, Sealants and Elastomers

Polyurethane coatings make a product look better and last longer. Polyurethane adhesives provide strong bonding advantages. Polyurethane sealants provide tighter seals. Polyurethane elastomers can be molded into almost any shape, are lighter than metal, offer superior stress recovery and can be resistant to many environmental factors.


1. Apparel

When scientists discovered that polyurethanes could be made into fine threads, they were combined with nylon to make more lightweight, stretchable garments. Over the years, polyurethanes have been improved and developed into Spandex fibers, polyurethane coatings, and thermoplastic elastomers.

2. Automotive

Polyurethanes are used throughout your car — in familiar places like the foam that makes your car seats comfortable, as well as a few places you might not expect.

3. Building & Construction

Today’s homes demand high-performance materials that are strong, yet lightweight; that perform well, yet are easily installed; and that are durable, but also versatile. With well over 1.5 million new homes being constructed in the U.S. each year, building-material quality and performance must be exceptionally reliable, which is why builders consistently turn to polyurethane.

4. Coatings, Adhesives, Sealants, Elastomers

The spectrum of polyurethane use in coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers not only advances traditional manufacturing methods, it also substantially expands the lifetime of a host of products.

Composite Wood

Some of today’s modern materials are a combination of synthetic and natural materials. Polyurethanes play a major role in today’s modern materials such as in composite wood.


Polyurethane, mostly in the form of flexible foam, is the one of the most popular materials used in home furnishings in places such as furniture, bedding and carpet underlay.


Boating as a pastime and a sport is increasingly popular. According to recent surveys, more than 70 million Americans enjoy boating each year.


Polyurethanes are commonly used in a number of medical applications including catheter and general purpose tubing, hospital bedding, surgical drapes, wound dressings, as well as in a variety of injection molded devices.

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