Few industries rely on polyurethane as heavily as the aerospace industry, and it’s easy to understand why. Polyurethane can handle environments that most other materials cannot, owing largely to the versatility it shows during fabrication. Polyurethane can be fabricated in a number of forms, allowing it to exhibit an impressive range of properties. These properties make it a mainstay in oil and gas pipelines, construction sites, manufacturing plants and, most relevantly, aircraft and spacecraft.
A Natural Fit for a Demanding Industry
Although polyurethane isn’t generally relied on to provide structural integrity, it can provide some support where needed, and do much more. This versatility is especially pronounced in the aerospace field, where everything must exhibit a high degree of durability, as well as other special properties, like impermeability. Polyurethane is ideal for this purpose, which is why it is used in numerous applications within the industry, including:
1. Polyurethane foam is a marvel of engineering, and is used extensively in aircraft and spacecraft. In typical passenger craft, it’s common for seating to be padded with polyurethane foam. In addition to the seating, polyurethane foam may be found in the aircraft’s insulation, its walls and ceilings, baggage compartments, and dividers between class segments and lavatories. Polyurethane foam can be found in similar capacities in military aircraft as well. In addition to providing a durable and inexpensive material for aircraft, polyurethane foam can be augmented with fluid to make it extremely airtight. By filling the tiny vesicles in the foam with fluid, it’s possible to maintain internal air pressure with little effort. Clearly, keeping air leakage to a minimum is a major priority in the aerospace industry.
2. Polyurethane foam is also a miracle worker for spacecraft, where NASA once applied it to the external fuel tanks used with its shuttles. NASA’s fuel tanks are made from a layer of aluminum as thin as 1/8 inch. With an inch of polyurethane foam, which was the standard, NASA could inexpensively improve the structural integrity of its fuel tanks, prevent moisture or air infiltration, and maintain fuel at optimal temperatures. The polyurethane foam was so tough that it often survived impact after being jettisoned following liftoff.
3. Polyurethane paints, typically created with water-based materials, can be applied to the exterior of aircraft to, again, prevent air leakage. However, polyurethane paints and coatings are also ideal for resisting abrasive forces, which can present a serious problem to aircraft that are scored with equipment or debris.
4. Polyurethane elastomers, or polyurethane materials that exhibit greater rigidity, are also found in many places throughout aircraft and spacecraft. They can be fabricated into seals and o-rings, or used to create miles and miles of hosing. Polyurethane elastomers can also be found in the cockpit, where they can line control sticks or provide a stable foundation for control panels. Polyurethane hosing and face cups are typically used for oxygen masks, and tray tables may be built from rigid polyurethane as well. Even the seals used around aircraft windows can be fabricated from polyurethane, as it can be built to any size or shape.
There are plenty of reasons why polyurethane is a frontline choice for the aerospace industry. Aircraft and spacecraft are subjected to intense gravitation forces, so they have to be able to give a bit during takeoff and landing. Polyurethane is exceptional in this regard, as it is designed to flex when placed under compressive force and bounce back to its original shape.
But, of course, its polyurethane’s incredible across-the-board durability that truly makes it a standard material for aerospace applications. In addition to withstanding impact and abrasive forces, polyurethane also provides exceptional thermal and corrosive resistance, able to maintain its integrity up to temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees Centigrade. Polyurethane foam, for example, is still perfectly functional at 140 degrees Centigrade. Polyurethane elastomers are even sturdier, which is why they can be trusted in things like engine blocks and exhaust hoses.
Beyond durability and unique physical properties, polyurethane offers some of the most cost-effective solutions on the market. Polyurethane can be built to any specifications, and quickly, keeping lead times manageable and budgets under control. No other material – not any type of metal or plastic – can be fabricated as quickly and inexpensively as polyurethane products.
It’s an impressive range of properties and why polyurethane can be fabricated into an impressive range of products. In the aerospace industry, this versatility is a massive advantage.