TRENDS IN RIGID FOAMS TECHNOLOGY
While the patent literature is notably poor at providing insight of fundamental science, it is the clearest way of understanding the future of a technology and market [71, 72]. This is because the patent literature represents a sizable investment by a company or individual on what is believed will be desirable by customers and market
FIGURE 8.23 Relative patent activity on polyurethane insulation foams by three large polyurethane chemical producers and patent activity written in Chinese.
competitors in the next generation product. Further, defense of a patent asset requires that the technology on which a patent is based must be protected by patent prior to its commercial introduction.
While a single patent may not be instructive as to the direction of future innovation, a clear trend in industrial patent activity can be unmistakable. Figure 8.23 shows the patent activity of several large multinational polyurethane feedstock providers over the years 2000-2013 on the subject of insulation foams from polyurethanes. In this analysis, the patents filed in the Chinese language represent the activity within the sizeable Chinese market by Chinese companies. For perspective, the total number of issued patents found within the search parameters was 1451; therefore, it is clear that there are a large number of patents not accounted for by this analysis. Despite this, it is likely that the preponderance of unaccounted for patents will reflect the activity of these highly experienced and influential participants (i.e., Dow, BASF, and Bayer) within the polyurethanes market. While all of the illustrative market participants are actively patenting technologies to protect current and future market strategies and commercial opportunities, BASF is clearly the technology leader and believes that their technology insures future market strength. Also notable about Figure 8.23 is that companies patenting in the Chinese language are more concentrated in rigid foam technologies than in the same analysis for flexible foams discussed in Chapter 7.
Figure 8.24 shows that the majority of issued patents are concentrated around improving properties that define rigid foam applications and those that are required
FIGURE 8.24 Patent activity of three large polyurethane chemical producers in the field of rigid foams by topic. (See insert for color representation of the figure.)
by regulation. Dow, BASF, Bayer, and Chinese-based companies all have shown a strong desire to invest in protecting future technologies associated with blowing agents and improved insulation properties. In this analysis, it is likely that there is some overlap between categories, since blowing agent technology can strongly impact thermal insulation properties as discussed in Section 8.3. In addition, it is apparent that fire proofing of polyurethane foams is a patent field of strategic importance to all commercial concerns related to rigid insulation foams for construction applications. Among smaller but significant concentrations of rigid foam patenting are technologies associated with advantaged catalysts and automotive applications. This activity and its intensity are common to that found in flexible foams. While flexible foams for automotive applications are primarily associated with seating, headliners, instrument panels, and carpet underlayment, rigid foam applications are usually poured or cut from buns for filling of body structural members for the purpose of structural reinforcement (Dow, Bayer), as a lightweighting component for a composite structure (BASF, Bayer, China) or as a lightweighting component of decorative or aerodynamic attachments like spoilers (Bayer, China).
Protected catalyst technology by Dow is generally around specific formulations for obtaining desirable cure schedules or physical properties, catalyst groupings for particularly effective processes using double metal cyanide alkoxylation catalysts, or catalyst packages for making isocyanurate foams. Chinese patents protect particular catalysts for use in rigid foam recycle, low-toxicity catalysts, catalyst compositions promoting short demolding times for appliance operations, and efficient foaming catalysts with functionalized seed oil triglycerides for the purpose of making a rigid foam. BASF patenting on catalysts is primarily preferable compositions for the making of structural boards, shelf stable formulated systems, and systems tuned for improved adhesion to pipe surfaces. Bayer has activity patenting improved polyol production for rigid foam application, improved productivity making composite construction panels, shortened demold times for appliances, and double metal cyanide based catalysis for the production of polyether polyols for rigid foams.
Technology trends for future polyurethane rigid foams advancements appear to be highly incremental and existing line extension improvements. It is useful to understand this fact, and equally important to understand what is not being worked upon. Gaps in activity can represent opportunities that are being missed by "the herd" or traps to those uninitiated on the difficulty and risks of bringing forward new technologies for a very conservative market place. The current analysis does not predict what the future will hold, but it is telling that taking advantage of the Knudsen effect for improved gas thermal conductivity for foam ^"-factor does not appear in this analysis of polyurethane technologies. Similarly, although there has been significant industrial and academic activity in the area of seed oil feedstocks for polyurethane synthesis, it barely registers as a field of pursuit in the patent literature of rigid polyurethane foams. It would appear that the primary driving forces for future rigid foam technology differentiation are in order (i) energy improvement, (ii) productivity increase, (iii) cost reduction, and (iv) recycling.