Polyurethane: performance for a greener world
Polyurethane is a material with which most people might think they are unfamiliar, whereas in fact each of us experiences it on a daily basis through countless products and applications, and to such an extent that it would be difficult to imagine a world without polyurethane today. Polyurethane is in fact one of the most versatile polymers and nowadays, thanks to technological progress, polyurethanes are also made for very special and delicate sectors. There are polyurethanes suitable for contact with foodstuffs, for the medical sector, and compatible with human organic tissues, as well as polyurethanes suitable for making dialysis filters, thermoplastic polyurethanes, thermoformable polyurethanes and a long series suitable for countless sectors and needs, from furniture to construction, and from the automotive to the nautical sector. The aforementioned versatility, which derives from a wide range of characteristics, is the reason for its success, but in a world that is increasingly attentive to energy consumption and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to the possibilities of recycling, polyurethane acquires additional value and interest in terms of being green and sustainable as it can comply with these requirements.
Despite being a synthetic plastic, polyurethane is considered a sustainable material both in terms of the way it is produced and the results obtained from its use. With regard to the production phase, there is in fact a minimal demand for energy, and studies have shown that the amount of resources consumed for production is quickly amortised in the use phase of the buildings, thanks to the energy savings brought about by thermal insulation, which reduces the consumption of gas, oil and electricity needed for heating and cooling. Another positive fact to be considered is that in addition to the excellent insulation performance it can provide, polyurethane has very low emissions, which are estimated to be lower than those of most other insulation products.
Polyurethanes are also ideal for the insulation of refrigeration appliances, enabling them to meet the highest energy standards with tangible benefits in reducing energy used. With regard to vehicles, polyurethane can also offer possibilities in ecological terms through lighter chassis, saving fuel and polluting emissions. Finally, it should be considered that polyurethane does not constitute a waste object, firstly because it is a very durable material, but above all because it can be reprocessed and reused.
The orientation towards green consumerism has driven science, chemistry and the economic-industrial world to seek increasingly eco-friendly production solutions through the formulation of polyurethanes derived from sugar and natural oils from soya, castor, sunflower and palm seeds. Researchers, such as those at the University of Minnesota, and Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, together with Iowa State University and the University of Cairo, have thus patented fully biological production methods without the product losing its properties once made. The near future will probably bring further improvements to production processes, with increasingly natural and renewable polyurethanes.
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