What is Memory Foam?

Memory Foam Imprint

The original purpose of producing Memory Foam was not to produce mattresses. Believe it or not, memory foam, also known as ‘viscoelastic’ was invented by NASA for use in aeronautic exercises etc. Today, it is widely used for producing mattresses, pillows, cushions, rugs, bath mats and even shoe insoles. Memory foam mattresses are one of the most popular types of mattresses in the current market.

When was Memory Foam Invented?

Memory foam was first produced for NASA, under a NASA contract. NASA wanted memory foam to be used on airline seat cushions to improve crash protection standards for passengers and airline pilots. This was in the 1970s. Therefore, this type of foam is less than 50 years old. During these 40+ years, the material has been tremendously improved. Today, it has come a long way away from air planes to our homes and bedrooms, in the form of mattresses, pillows, rugs, mats and shoe insoles.

How is it made?

Memory foam is made of polyurethane (abbreviated as PU) which has a petroleum base. The building blocks of polyurethanes are carbamate groups (-NHCO2 groups). German chemist, Friedrich Bayer is identified as the first chemist to have discovered PU, back in 1937. It wasn’t until 1953 that the first commercial product of PU was manufactured; this was a flexible polyurethane that was mainly used for insulation work.

It was subsequent work on this basic PU that gave rise to memory foam in the 1970s. The major feature of memory foam compared to other types of foam is its relatively low resilience. In other words, memory foam doesn’t ‘spring back’ as much as other types of foam or latex would do. This is why it is also called low-resilience polyurethane (LRPu).

Why is Memory Foam So Special?

Two characteristics of memory foam make it unique. You must have seen those TV ads showing the imprint left by a hand pressing against the mattress; this imprint happens due to two things;

  1. memory foam is heat sensitive and therefore ‘melts’ to the heat of your hand and it takes the shape of anything that presses on it
  2. its lack of spring back or low resilience helps keep the imprint long

Here’s a video comparing memory foam to two competitor materials and you’ll understand why memory foam is superior to others.

You would have also seen numerous TV commercials and photos on the web that emphasize the body impression made on memory foam mattresses. This helps align your spinal chord properly preventing back pains.

References:

  1. Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology
  2. Seymour/Carraher’s Polymer Chemistry