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Urea-formaldehyde, also known as urea-methanal, named so for its common synthesis pathway and overall structure,[1] is a non-transparent thermosetting resin or plastic, made from urea and formaldehyde heated in the presence of a mild base such as ammonia or pyridine. These resins are used in adhesives, finishes, MDF, and molded objects.

It was first synthesized in 1884 by Hölzer, who was working with Bernhard Tollens.[2] In 1919, Hanns John (1891–1942) of Prague, Czechoslovakia obtained the first patent for urea-formaldehyde resin.[3]

Properties

Urea-formaldehyde resin's attributes include high tensile strength, flexural modulus, and heat distortion temperature, low water absorption, mould shrinkage, high surface hardness, elongation at break, and volume resistance.

Chemical structure

The chemical structure of UF resins can be described as that of polymethylene. This description leaves the details of the structure undetermined, which can vary linearly and branched. These are grouped by their average molar mass and the content of different functional groups. Changing synthesis conditions of the resins give good designing possibilities for the structure and resin properties.

Production

Approximately 1 million metric tons of urea-formaldehyde are produced every year. Over 70% of this production is then put into use by the forest industry products. produces a great resin for bonding particleboard (61%), medium density fiberboard (27%), hardwood plywood (5%), and laminating adhesive (7%).

General uses

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A range of objects made from urea formaldehyde

Urea-Formaldehyde is everywhere and used in many manufacturing processes due to its useful properties. Examples include decorative laminates, textiles, paper, foundry sand molds, wrinkle resistant fabrics, cotton blends, rayon, corduroy, etc. It is also used to glue wood together. Urea formaldehyde was commonly used when producing electrical appliances casing (e.g. desk lamps).

The product is widely chosen as an adhesive resin due to its high reactivity, good performance, and low price. Urea-formaldehyde resin is a chemical combination of urea and formaldehyde. Amino resins are considered a class of thermosetting resins of which urea-formaldehyde resins make up 80% produced globally. Examples of amino resins include automobile tires in order to improve the bonding of rubber to tire cord, paper for improving tear strength, molding electrical devices, molding jar caps, etc.

Agricultural use

Urea formaldehyde is also used in agriculture as a controlled release source of nitrogen fertilizer. Urea formaldehyde’s rate of decomposition into CO2 and NH3 is determined by the action of microbes found naturally in most soils. The activity of these microbes, and, therefore, the rate of nitrogen release, is temperature dependent. The optimum temperature for microbe activity is approximately 70-90 °F (approx 20-30°C).

Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation

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Urea-formaldehyde insulation

Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) dates back to the 1930s and made a great synthetic insulation with R-values near 5.0 per inch. It is basically a foam, like shaving cream that is easily injected into walls with a hose. It is made by using a pump set and hose with a mixing gun to mix the foaming agent, resin and compressed air. The fully expanded foam is pumped into areas in need of insulation. It becomes firm within minutes but cures within a week. UFFI is generally spotted in homes built before the 1970s; one should look in basements, crawl spaces, attics, and unfinished attics. Visually it looks like oozing liquid that has been hardened. Over time, it tends to vary in shades of butterscotch but new UFFI is a light yellow color. Early forms of UFFI tended to shrink significantly. Modern UF insulation with updated catalysts and foaming technology have reduced shrinkage to minimal levels (between 2-4%). The foam dries with a dull matte color with no shine. When cured, it often has a dry and crumbly texture.

Safety concerns

Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was used extensively in the 1970s. Homeowners used UFFI as a wall cavity filler at the time in order to conserve energy. In the 1980s, concerns began to develop about formaldehyde vapor emitted in the curing process, as well as from the breakdown of old foam. Emission rates exceeding 3.0 - 5.0 parts per million (ppm) cause a variety of adverse health effects impacting the eyes, nose, and respiratory system. Consequently, its use was discontinued. The urea-formaldehyde emissions decline over time and significant levels should no longer be present in the homes today.[4] Modern replacement options for UFFI include melamine formaldehyde resin, low-emission UF insulation materials, and polyurethane.

UFFI was usually mixed at the location of use while constructing the home’s walls. It was then injected inside the walls, the curing process occurs, and the final product acts as an insulating agent. Because less information was known about the toxic health effects of formaldehyde in the 1970s, extra formaldehyde was often added to the mixture to ensure that the curing process would occur completely. Since the UFFI was not a well-sealed product [open-celled foam], any excess formaldehyde in the insulation would off-gas into the home's living space. The early UFFI materials were also affectd by moisture and heat which compounded the offgassing concerns. When temperature rises, residuals of formaldehyde contained in the insulation are released and migrate into indoor air. Remedial actions to take when formaldehyde levels exceed recommended levels include sealing off the any outlets for the vapors; sealing any cracks or openings in interior walls; removng any sources of water or moisture that come in contact with the insulation; applying one or more layers of vapor barrier paint; increasing the air exchange rate with outside air in buildings that are tightly sealed; or covering walls with mylar or vinyl paper. Aluminum foil is a useful alternative for barricading vapors. Generally there is not an off-gassing concern with older UFFI insulation since those materials have already cured. Removal is a costly and tedious option for UFFI and would require a replacement insulation installation.

Health effects

Health effects occur when urea-formaldehyde based materials and products release formaldehyde into the air. Generally there are no observable health effects from formaldehyde when air concentrations are below 1.0 ppm. The onset of respiratory irritation and other health effects, and even increased cancer risk begins when air concentrations exceed 3.0-5.0 ppm. This triggers watery eyes, nose irritations, wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rash, severe allergic reactions, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans (usually > 1.0 ppm). Recent studies have shown that chronic exposure at elevated levels can cause naso-pharyengeal cancer in humans and animals Occupants of UFFI insulated homes with elevated formaldehyde levels experienced systemic symptoms such as headache, malaise, insomnia, anorexia, and loss of libido. Irritation of the mucus membrane (specifically eyes, nose, and throat) was a common upper respiratory tract symptom related to formaldehyde exposure. However when compared to control groups, the frequency of symptoms did not exceed the controls expect when it came to wheezing, difficult breathing, and a burning skin sensation. Controlled studies have suggested that tolerance to formaldehyde's odor and irritating effects can occur over a prolonged exposure. Tolerance, sensitivity, and idiosyncratic reactions should be considered for further investigation. The effects of cancer or congenital malformations may be too low to assess.

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