Chemist Otto Bayer was actually trying to find a new process for producing textile fibers when instead, over 75 years ago, he invented a completely new type of plastic – polyurethanes. These have now become an everyday material that helps save energy when insulating buildings and refrigerating food. And they also support renewable energies.
Facades, walls, floors, ceilings and roofs – many parts of a house can be well insulated so as to reduce the amount of electricity required for heating and climate control. Covestro develops and produces the components for the polyurethane foam that makes insulating panels particularly sustainable. This foam is up to 40 percent more effective than other insulating materials and, over its lifetime, helps save some 70 times as much energy as is needed to produce it.
Huge potential in building insulation
There is huge demand for building insulation. The energy efficiency of millions of existing buildings still needs to be improved, and new construction is often required to be particularly sustainable. In the European Union, for example, only zero-energy buildings that generate almost as much energy as they use will be permitted from 2020 onward. Buildings are true energy guzzlers, accounting for approximately 40 percent of global energy consumption and about one-third of emissions of harmful greenhouse gases such as CO2.
Refrigerators and freezers also consume a great deal of energy – around one-fifth of a modern household’s total electricity requirements. This explains why rigid polyurethane foam is used in virtually all refrigeration appliances and equipment. Their energy efficiency has already been significantly improved – by about 65 percent between 1950 and 2005.
Despite these achievements, the industry is working to continuously further improve the insulating properties of polyurethanes. The latest breakthrough by Covestro in this field is a rigid foam with cells that are up to a further 40 percent smaller than in conventional products. This in turn cuts thermal conductivity by up to 10 percent, with the result that refrigerators consume even less electricity and offer more storage space.
Taking wind power to new heights
Saving electricity is important, but the amounts still required should also come from renewable sources such as wind turbines as far as possible. In the future, it will be possible to make the rotors far lighter and longer, which facilitates increasing the electricity yield. This is supported by a new product from Covestro that is particularly efficient at joining together the elements inside a rotor blade.
Polyurethanes are primarily produced from two chemical substances – isocyanates and polyols. Covestro considers itself a pioneer in improving the manufacturing process for these raw materials, making it easier, more cost-effective and sustainable. One of the success stories in isocyanate production is a process in which two chemicals react in a gaseous state rather than as liquids in the final production step. This means 80 percent less solvent and 60 percent less energy are needed.