Foam has a rich history that dates back to 1849. With the creation of foam, many great new products were able to manifest, bringing us to some of the most versatile and comfortable products available today. Foam manufacturing and its processes have served us for nearly two centuries, and the developments that occurred during that time have only helped to serve us better. Let’s take a look back at the history of foam and the many steps it took to make foam part of so many of the things we enjoy and use in our daily lives.
In the Beginning, Science Created Foam
The creation of foam started with the discovery of urethane chemicals. The scientists Wurtz and Hoffman were the first people to come across these chemicals. In 1849, they reported the first reaction between an isocyanate and a hydroxy compound, making the basis for foam development.
This information hibernated until 1937. In that year, while he was working at the laboratories of I.G. Farbenindustrie A.G. in Leverkusen, Germany, Otto Bayer found the product that was birthed from the chemical reaction discovered by Wurtz and Hoffman. He started to see commercial uses for foam. The world was on the brink of World War II during this time, and essential products were scarce. This created a need to replace nylon, which Bayer intended to fill. To compete with nylon, Bayer began working on the creation of polyester-based urethane polymers, turning urethane into a product that could effectively be used commercially.
World War Foam
The onset of World War II stressed a heightened need for fibers, coatings, and foams, which Bayer’s work was able to fill. In 1942, the first patent for flexible polyurethane foam preparation was issued to Zaunbrecher and Barth. They created a one-step process for the production of foam, but it was highly exothermic, releasing a great deal of heat in the process. This meant that it typically resulted in scorched products and sometimes started fires. So, they ended up expanding the process to involve two steps instead, alleviating the factor of excessive heat being generated during production.
Once World War II had ended, German technology became known to the general global community. This sparked extensive research and development, especially in the United States, Germany, and Britain. Diisocyanates and polyester polyols were the common subject of study because they created foam. Unfortunately, the foam created by these elements yielded physical properties that we lackluster at best. Additionally, the process was expensive, and the foam product was excessively difficult to produce. So, scientists began looking for alternative hydroxy compounds that would be easier to make and would ultimately yield a better foam product.
The Start of Commercial Foam Production
In 1954, the first commercial production of foam began in Europe, followed shortly by the United States. Polyether polyols in the form of poly tetramethylene ether glycol (PTMEG) were introduced in 1956 by DuPont.
Then, in 1957 the world of foam and synthetic products went through a massive shift. A whole new range of more cost-effective polyether polyols came on the scene that vastly improved on the performance of existing polyester products. The process needed to create these foams allowed them to be more easily mass-produced, leading to a boom in production. The newer foams also had improved physical properties over existing options, making it more useful and popular. This time also brought about the introduction of silicone surfactants. Surfactants in foam production have a number of benefits, from reducing the work needed to create foam to making it more stable and helping to keep the “bubble” size more stable. These qualities improved the number of potential applications and the practicality of using foam. Because of these and other developments, the polyurethane industry saw an unprecedented boom.
The Foam Market, Manufacturing Gets Competitive
During the 1960s, about 100 small companies competitively produced foam. While the manufacturing saw many improvements, shipping costs to the companies using the foam became an issue. The increased demand for high-quality foam led to the establishment of foam plants throughout the country so that they could be closer to their customers.
As the 1970s rolled around, it became clear that the foam industry was entering a volatile era. The first major event was an industry consolidation, condensing the number of foam producers from 100 to about 20. Later in the decade, environmental concerns started to become a huge issue. Concern over foam flammability and fire safety brought the producers together to form an industry association to address the problem. While it was common knowledge that foam was generally flammable, like many other commercial products, it was widely agreed that it seemed possible to improve its combustion characteristics. This led to extensive research and the rewriting of flammability disclaimers for foam companies. In April of 1980, the idea of an industry association became fully formed with the establishment of the Flexible Polyurethane Foam Manufacturers Association, whose name was later shortened to what we know today as the Polyurethane Foam Association.
Today, over 725,000 tons of foam is produced every year in the United States alone, and it is an integral part of nearly every aspect of industry and production. Foam, and related products, are a huge part of consumer packaging. The research of foam and enhancing its physical properties wages on, creating a continuously evolving substance that only gets better.
Foam is commonly used in manufacturing mattresses, furniture, thermal insulation, acoustic products, car seats, and packaging materials, as well as numerous other mass-produced products that we frequently use. Out of all global polyurethane production, foams are about 67% of the total. In 2020, the estimated market of foam was about $37.8 billion, and it’s only expected to expand. By 2025, we should see growth landing the value of the foam industry at about $54.3 billion!
Foam has certainly seen many changes and developments over the years. It took a great deal of time to manifest, as well as countless hours of research to perfect the manufacturing process for foam. The physical properties of the foam we use today are leagues above the first product created, making it a staple for the creation of everyday products. Today it’s hard to imagine a world without foam, where your car seat or mattress wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable as it is now! So, every time you use your comfortable foam products, you can know that you’re using the product of a culmination of years of research, history, and development.
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