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MFA# 1989.818


A family of polymers made by a condensation reaction of an organic isocyanate with a compound containing a hydroxyl group, such as glycol. Polymers of this type (ester type) were first made in 1937 by Otto Bayer at I.G.Farben. During W.W.II, Germany made brush bristles and filtration fabrics from Perlon U, an early polyurethane. In the 1950s another type of polyurethane using an ether starting compound (ether type) was used to produce elastomeric polyurethane fiber called spandex. Spandex has elastic characteristics similar to Natural rubber. In addition to fibers, elastomeric polyurethanes are used for sealants, adhesives, films, and automobile bumpers. Polyurethanes can be rigid or soft, thermosetting or Thermoplastic. Additionally, they react with isocyanates to produce a foamed resin. Polyurethane resins are also used as coatings where they provide excellent hardness, Gloss, and resistance to Weathering, Abrasion, acids, and alkalis.

Table of Polyurethane variations and their Characteristics
Types Properties Forms Characteristics Uses
Polyether urethane thermoset flexible open cells lightweight, resistant to water, allows vapor penetration, larger bubbles, less expensive speaker foam, aquarium filters, patio cushions, foam padding, mattresses, flotation devices
Polyester urethane thermoset flexible open cells lightweight, resistant to solvents, allows vapor penetration, smaller bubbles packing foam, insulation, soundproofing, shock absorption, pink anti-static foam, mops, sponges
Polyether urethane thermoset rigid closed cells dense, resistant to water, less expensive thermal and moisture insulation, vapor barriers, tool making, wood replacement
Polyester urethane thermoset rigid closed cells dense, resistant to solvents thermal and moisture insulation, vapor barriers, tool making, wood replacement
Polyether urethane thermoplastic (PUR) soft to rigid textiles, upholstery, elastane
Polyester urethane thermoplastic (PUR) soft to rigid skate wheels, safety helmets

Synonyms and Related Terms

PUR; poliuretano (Esp.); polyuréthane (Fr.); poliuretano (It.); poliuretano (Port.); spandex; elastane

Examples: Perlon® U [Ger.]; Lycra® [DuPont];


Personal Risks

Urethane burns with a bright flame producing a sharp odor and toxic fumes.

Fischer Fixing Systems: [Safety Data Sheet] [[File:Polyurethane chair.jpg|thumb|Polyurethane chair
MFA# 1996.111]





Collection Risks

  • Potential degradation products are hydrogen cyanide and ammonia.
  • Polyether type urethanes are very susceptible to light degradation.
  • Polyester type urethanes are very susceptible to degradation at high humidities.
  • Polyurethane foams can yellow, become brittle and crumble.
  • Chlorine bleach may cause degradation.

Hydrolysis of polyester urethane foams can lead to loss of the structural support given by this material. Oxidation of polyether urethane foams is the primary deterioration method. (Lattuati-Derieux, 2011)

Physical and Chemical Properties

Coatings are resistant to weathering, abrasion, acids and alkalis.

Attacked by aromatic solvents, chlorinated solvents, ozone, and nitrogen oxides.

Spot test for detection: dimethyl amino benzaldehyde in glacial acetic acid - positive reaction gives bright yellow color (Roff et al 1971)

Working Properties

Additional Information

Links to Oddy Test results posted on AIC Wiki Materials Database Pages for individual materials below

water-based Polyurethane tested in 2003


Properties of Synthetic Fibers

Physical Properties for Selected Thermoplastic Resins

General Characteristics of Polymers

Resources and Citations

  • Lattuati-Derieux, A.; Thao-Heu, S.; Lavédrine, B. “Assessment of the degradation of polyurethane foams after artificial and natural ageing by using pyrolysis-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and headspace-solid phase microextraction-gas chromatography/mass spectrometry” Journal of Chromatography A, 1218(28) 2011, 4498-4508.


  • Contributions: Molly McGath and Thea van Oossten, AIC Plastics Panel, 2020.
  • W.J.Roff, J.R.Scott, J.Pacitti (compilers) Handbook of Common Polymers:Fibres, Gilms, Plastics and Rubber Cleveland: CRC Press, Butterworth & Co., 1971.
  • C&E News Aug 2004 - first developed by Otto Bayer in 1937.
  • Marjorie Shelley, The Care and Handling of Art Objects, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1987
  • Thomas C. Jester (ed.), Twentieth-Century Building Materials, McGraw-Hill Companies, Washington DC, 1995
  • Michael McCann, Artist Beware, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York City, 1979
  • Dictionary of Building Preservation, Ward Bucher, ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, 1996
  • Sharon Blank, An introduction to plastics and rubbers in collections, Studies in Conservation, 35, 53-63, 1990
  • M. Baker, E. McManus, 'History, Care and Handling of America's Spacesuits', JAIC, 31, 77-85, 1992
  • Theodore J. Reinhart, 'Glossary of Terms', Engineered Plastics, ASM International, 1988
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • The American Heritage Dictionary or Encarta, via Microsoft Bookshelf 98, Microsoft Corp., 1998
  • Website address: www.me.umist.ac.uk.historyp/

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