Railway OEMs cope with REACH regulations that impact the use of diisocyanates

Henkel offers alternative solutions that maintain manufacturing standards

Explore our beta site

Are you an Industrial Manufacturing or Industrial Maintenance and Repair professional? Explore our brand-new beta site for a customized experience.

Browse Now

As innovations in the rail sector emerge, adhesive bonding has become a key component in the manufacture of parts that offer superior performance and durability in rail vehicles and infrastructure applications.

For decades these objectives were achieved in part with adhesive solutions containing diisocyanates, a family of chemical building blocks mainly used to make polyurethane products.  

Polyurethanes were preferred over other chemistries for their high initial tack, exceptional tensile strength, elongation (up to 600%), and high fatigue resistance. They also show effective resistance to rail cleaners, with no loss of mechanical properties, and do reasonably well in UV exposure for exterior applications.

But the use of these compounds will one day be restricted in Europe – and eventually elsewhere due to the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals initiative, or REACH.

REACH calls for the progressive substitution of specific chemicals such as diisocyanates (referred to as "substances of very high concern" or SVHC) when suitable alternatives have been identified. Having entered into force in 2007, REACH provisions are being phased-in over 11 years.

To determine REACH compliance, companies must identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture or market to the European Union. They have to demonstrate to ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) how they’ve determined a substance can be safely used without harming the end customer. 

How the rail industry is responding

While the current aim of the legislation is not to ban the use of diisocyanates, but to improve control over their use, the REACH restriction poses a challenge for rail industry OEMs. In addition, many individual local governments / plants / customers are choosing to ban them based on the negative health effects, even though this has not been mandated.

Diisocyanates in combination with various polyols, are essentially the “backbone” of a polyurethane material, making them almost impossible to eliminate. As a result, rather than cope with regulations that lay down specific migration limits (the maximum permitted quantities of a substance classified as hazardous to health), OEMs are seeking alternative solutions to polyurethanes that will maintain their manufacturing standards in safety, durability and flexibility.

Toward that end many are turning to Henkel, and its global network of engineering and R&D centers staffed by over 3,000 design and application professionals.

Henkel’s Silane Modified Polymers (SMPs) are structural adhesives for applications where high elasticity, primerless adhesion on various substrates and high fatigue resistance are needed.

Like polyurethane adhesives they were primarily designed and developed to replace welds, rivets, and other mechanical fasteners, enabling the assembly of non-metallic substrates with the added benefit of contributing to lighter weight designs, also called lightweighting. However, they contain no solvent, isocyanates or silicone, and thus are not restricted by REACH.

Applications for Henkel SMPs include structural bonding of panels, walls, roofs and floors, as well as bonding windscreens and side windows to the train body. These materials eliminate the need for rubber seals, resulting in improved vehicle appearance, and are superior to polyurethanes in outdoor applications where UV resistance is required.

Henkel SMP materials have an advantage in process robustness.  Polyurethanes work well but require a multiple step exacting process of cleaning and priming steps that have very specific time limitations. For best results, SMPs require the cleaning and priming, but the process is less sensitive and tolerant of variations.  In some cases, primerless adhesion is possible. 

Henkel SMP materials are compatible with most paint systems, to allow seamless blending with the exterior finish for enhanced vehicle aesthetics. These solutions provide excellent anti-flutter qualities when bonding inner to outer panels, and impressive UV resistance.

Assembly line adjustment would be minimal for this transition, as SMPs can be dispensed by hand or automatically using a manufacturer’s current equipment. 

Today: Europe and Asia; Tomorrow? 

There are currently no categories of diisocyanate chemicals outside Europe and Asia that are subject to similar limitations, but that may not always be the case. There is already legislation in some states in the US, which follows similar legislation to the REACH and SVHC requiring additional restrictions. A renewed focus on environmental issues may eventually inspire the adoption of REACH regulations at the federal level in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Experts believe that in time REACH will lead to the phasing out of several substances deemed hazardous, as investigations continue into exposure scenarios and risk management measures when using these products.

There is no going back to mechanical fasteners when elastomeric structural adhesives seal, bond and protect with increased strength in one step.

Replacing adhesive solutions containing diisocyanates with Henkel SMPs preserves the qualities OEMs expect from this preferred bonding method: noise, vibration, harshness (NVH) damping, corrosion prevention, improved aesthetics, even stress distribution, reduction of water leaks and efficient assembly time. 

Henkel provides a complete range of technologies that comply with REACH restrictions. They are appropriate for a variety of assembly applications and maintain elasticity for improvement of torsional stiffness and accommodation of differential thermal expansion.

The result is stronger, lighter, more economical vehicles with increased performance.

About the author

Ruairi O’Kane

Head Global Strategy Aviation, Space & Rail


Ruairi has been serving the chemical industry for more than 15 years. He is a technology-focused market strategist who has developed adhesives, advanced materials and polymer solutions for the aerospace, semiconductor and industrial sectors

He is currently the Global Strategy Head for the Aviation, Space & Rail group at Henkel Adhesive Technologies. He joined Henkel in 2006 after completing his degree in chemistry in Trinity College Dublin and PhD in Metal Organic Chemical Vapour Deposition at the University of Liverpool. Ruairi has also completed a BSc in Technology Management.

Contact us

Please fill out the form below and we'll respond shortly.

There are some errors, please correct them below
What would you like to request?
This field is required
This field is required
This field is required
This field is required
This field is required
This field is required
This field is invalid