The increasing demand for resilient, lightweight materials has led to a growing number of developments in polymers and plastics manufacturing. While many of these materials are not new, re-engineering has made it possible to enhance the chemical and physical properties of existing compounds. Altering the chemical constituents and processing methodologies has enabled manufacturers to improve the performance of materials to allow them to be used in an increasingly broad range of applications. Novel polymers and plastics are being produced that can withstand much higher temperatures or demonstrate greater ductility than was previously possible.
These advances in polymers and plastics manufacturing are not without their disadvantages. Often, the improved characteristics are achieved at the expense of another. For example, the processing a material undergoes to improve temperature resistance frequently results in it becoming too brittle. In addition, polymer and plastic manufacturers must ensure that the cost/benefit ratio is aligned with return on investment for their customers.
Today’s equipment manufacturers are exploring methods to produce components with greater longevity to reduce wear and maintenance. Many are replacing metal with polymers and plastics that exhibit similar characteristics such as strength and rigidity but superior resistance to chemicals and heat. Polyether ether ketones have been recognized for their heat-resistant properties for some time. Recently, reformulations of these polymers have been introduced that also display improved wear resistance. They are presently used in a number of food processing applications where direct contact with food is necessary. In addition, the lower coefficient of friction has led to the increasing use of this material in the production of bushings, bearings and seals. Polyether ether ketone compounds provide lighter weight components as well as cost savings for equipment manufacturers.
When polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, is added to polyether ether ketones, it improves the wear resistance of the material. However, since the two compounds require different processing temperatures, the PTFE typically disperses. This results in a degree of wear on the finished product as the PTFE breaks down. Recent developments in processing have resolved the difficulties with dispersion, and these hydrocarbon-resistant materials are currently used for sealing surfaces in the oil and gas industry.
Nanoscale additives are being used to improve wear resistance and mechanical strength. Manufacturers are reinforcing high-performance polymers with long-fibered constituents to develop stronger materials with properties analogous to metals. Glass and carbon fiber additives can improve the load-bearing capabilities of plastics, making them competitive alternatives to aluminum or zinc. Fiber additions can range from 20 to 50 percent, allowing a high degree of flexibility and customization for customer applications. Fiber-reinforced polymers offer ease of processing and are commonly used in injection molding.
A variety of new plastics and polymers are being introduced to enhance current methodologies. Fusible resin provides flexible joints for plumbing pipes, eliminating the need for breaks at turns as well as leakage. Higher chlorine-resistant resins provide materials with greater longevity and improved energy efficiency for hot water lines. Biosourced polymer compounds are also opening doors for new opportunities in the optics, medical and electronics industries.