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Published: December 2012
Polyurethane (PU) foams constitute the largest category of cellular polymeric materials. They are produced, for the most part, in either flexible or rigid form. Within these groups, the density and other properties vary depending on the end use. PU foams offer an attractive balance of performance characteristics (aging properties, mechanical strength, elastic properties, chemical resistance, insulating properties) and cost. Flexible PU foams are used primarily for cushioning and rigid PU foams for insulation. For some applications, foams that have some stiffness and some elasticity are produced; in the trade, these are called semiflexible or semirigid foams.Regionally, polyurethane foam demand is relatively close to production because trade is not economic over larger distances. Even within the United States and China, supply geographically follows demand very closely. However, in Europe trade in higher-valued foams and compressed foam rolls has increased significantly over the last few years.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of PU foam:
The major drivers for global polyurethane foam markets are regulation and energy efficiency (for rigid foam insulation); an increasing world population, particularly a rising middle class in the emerging markets (for flexible foam); and increased use for refrigeration (rigid foam).
Polyurethane foam producers are challenged around the globe with manufacturing "greener" PU foams with improved sustainability and environmental characteristics—for example, polyurethane foams produced with bio-based polyols, rigid foams made with blowing agents with low global warming potential (GWP), and foams not using PBDE (polybrominated diphenylether) fire retardants. Many flexible PU foam producers and automotive seating manufacturers provide products made with bio-based polyols (the renewable content is widely varied). However, market penetration of "green" PU was still small in most of the global PU markets in 2012.
During 2012 to 2017, consumption in the Americas is forecast to increase in line with GDP levels at an average annual rate of about 2.8%. Growth drivers are flexible foam for the transportation sectors (recovery of the North American automotive industry) and rigid foam for construction and refrigerator/freezer markets. The latter market will see growth primarily in Mexico and only to a lesser extent in the United States and Canada.
During 2012, Western European polyurethane markets were negatively impacted by economic insecurity caused by the debt crisis in southern European countries, which was triggered by the crisis in Greece. Projected growth rates in Western Europe might be reached, but only if this state debt crisis is resolved in the foreseeable future.
After the global recession of 2008–2009, Chinese markets recovered as a result of the Chinese government stimulus plan to encourage domestic consumption.
The Indian polyurethane foam market is fast-growing for uses such as insulation for construction and refrigeration, as well as for flexible foam for car seats and two-wheeler seats. The production of flexible foam accounts for the largest share of the Indian polyurethane industry.
PU foam markets in Japan have been at essentially the same level for many years. Japanese foamers have actively participated in developing environmentally friendly products by adopting CO2 foaming technology to improve their competitiveness and sustainability. A spike in consumption was seen for automotive uses in 2012, but consumption is expected to return to more normal levels, leading to an apparent consumption decline in 2012–2017.