Formaldehyde’s Many Applications
Formaldehyde is an extremely versatile and important chemical building block that is manufactured on an industrial scale and used in controlled industrial processes for a number of applications. Most manufactured formaldehyde is combined with other substances to produce formaldehyde-based resins, or glues. Formaldehyde-based resins are excellent adhesive and low-cost materials that play an integral role in many construction and furniture applications including the production of particle board and wood panels. Some types of formaldehyde-based resins also have excellent heat and chemical resistance which make them essential in the production of certain types of automobile and aeroplane parts.
Formaldehyde is also used as an intermediate to produce other chemicals, many of which play an important role in the production of coatings and plastics such as polyurethanes.
Because formaldehyde has excellent antibacterial properties, a small percentage of manufactured formaldehyde can be found in healthcare applications such as vaccines and disinfectants.
The following are some of the most common substances made using formaldehyde.
Urea formaldehyde (UF) resins
The largest application for formaldehyde is the production of urea formaldehyde (UF) resins. These amino resins are made by combining urea and formaldehyde heated with a mild acid catalyst like ammonia. UF resins are high performance, low-cost, thermosetting adhesives with excellent abrasion resistance. Most UF resins in the EU are used to make building materials such as particle board and plywood.
Phenol formaldehyde (PF) resins
In 1907 a Belgian chemist, Dr. Leo Baekeland used a phenol formaldehyde (PF) resin to invent Bakelite, a hard moldable plastic that is generally regarded as the first synthetic polymeric material. PF resins have high moisture and chemical resistance as well as high heat resistance. End use applications include fiberglass insulation, decorative and industrial laminates and under-the-hood components in automobiles.
Melamine formaldehyde (MF) resins
Melamine formaldehyde (MF) resins are thermosetting adhesives made from melamine and formaldehyde by polymerization. MF resins have similar properties to UF resins, but they are tougher and more thermally stable and chemically resistant. MF resins are used for higher end applications like laminates for countertops and cabinets and surface coatings for automobiles that require a binder with good cosmetic characteristics.
Polyoxymethylenes (POM) are high performing thermoplastics produced through the polymerization of formaldehyde. These important engineering resins are used to make precision parts that require high stiffness and low friction and can be molded into highly precise, complex shapes. As a result, they have replaced metals and other plastics in many applications. In the EU, POM is primarily used in a wide range of industrial and automotive applications.
Methylene bis (dephenyl di-isocyanate) (MDI)
Formaldehyde is used as an intermediary to help produce Methylene bis (dephenyl di-isocyanate) (MDI). Most MDI goes into the production of polyurethane foams which are used in a number of applications including as an insulation material in construction and automobiles.
1,4-Butanediol (BDO), can be produced via the Reppe process which is based on a reaction of acetylene and formaldehyde. In the EU, BDO is an intermediate in the production of tertahydrofuran (THF) and polybutylene (PBT) resins. THF resins are used to produce spandex fibers (like the ones found in Lycra) as well as elastomeric products like buttons and rollers. PBT resins have a variety of applications including the production of car bumpers and as connectors and insulators in electrical components.
Pentaerythritol (Penta) is an alcohol produced from formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. The largest use of Penta in the EU is the production of alkyd resins which are low-cost, durable, have short drying times and have high water and chemical resistance. Alkyd resins are found in architectural coatings like paints and product finishes for automobiles. Penta is also used to make neopolyol esters. Because neopolyol esters can withstand extreme temperatures, they are an important ingredient in engine lubricants for aeroplane turbines and automobile engines.
Hexamine is a specialty chemical produced from formaldehyde and ammonia. It is primarily used to make epoxy resins which are curing agents found, for example, in the lining of tin cans. Hexamine is also used as an accelerator to create vulcanized rubber for automobile.
Paraformaldehyde (PFA) is produced by a condensation reaction of formaldehyde. It is mainly used as a fungicide and a disinfectant.
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