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Stable form for 80 years

| Editor: Rosemarie Stahl

During a presentation, Otto Bayer demonstrates an experiment with polyurethane foam (1952).
During a presentation, Otto Bayer demonstrates an experiment with polyurethane foam (1952). (Source: Bayer AG)

A material we use everyday: Polyurethane. It is used in our car seats, cleaning sponges, filters, and many more. It is one of the most important plastic materials today. This year, the invention of polyurethane is celebrating its 80th anniversary.

When it comes to our modern lifestyle, there are numerous inventions from the last millennium that helped to achieve the level of comfort we are used to today. A prominent example is the car. But sometimes, it's the small things that no one notices that actually make our lives easier. Think of the office chair, for example: How many hours do workers all over the world spend everyday on this seat? After work, people get into their cars and sit – hopefully comfortably – again on a padded chair. Whether the end of the day is spend at home on the sofa or perhaps with friends at a bar: We sit comfortably on upholstery. This comfort is due to the air that can circulate freely in the upholstery – thanks to the foam. And that, even though researchers doubted at the beginning whether it would be possible to produce this material at all.

Today, it is estimated that the material adds up to 5% of all plastics produced. Around 500,000 people are working in the production and processing of it. This year, it is 80 years old: Polyurethane. In the form of polyurethane foam (PUR foam), we use the material on an everyday basis. The foam is not only used for upholstering chairs but also for cleaning sponges, medical dressings and filters, making it indispensable for daily tasks. That puts PUR on a par with other essential plastic materials, for example, vulcanised rubber.

The popularity of polyurethane foam is due to its versatility and durability. Additionally, the pores of the foam are huge enough that air is able to circulate freely, preventing the storage of warmth and moisture. The foam is also famous for its form stability. Cushions remain in their original form for a long time.

In many cases, PUR foam is sold and used in the form of flexible blocks. Some flexible versions can also be moulded, which is often applied for car seats. For applications for building isolations, rigid foams are used.

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A famous invention at only 31 years of age

The inventor of one of the world's most important plastics was the German chemist, Otto Bayer. Even though he shares his name with the famous global enterprise Bayer, he is not related to the founding family of the producer of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Still, he worked for the company from the age of 31.

Otto Bayer was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on 4 November 1902. This was where he also studied chemistry and completed his doctorate. His supervisor was the equally famous chemist, Julius von Braun.

Bayer begins his first job at Casella Farbwerke thanks to the mediation of von Braun in 1927. Only six years later, Bayer is head of the central research. His main research interest at that time is the investigation of vat and sulfur dyes and the light fastness of dyes.

Casella Farbwerke belongs to I.G. Farbenindustrie, a merger of companies of the German colour industry. Among them are also BASF, Bayer and Agfa. The group exists until 1951, until companies like Bayer are re-established. Here, too, Otto Bayer works as head of research.

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