Boston’s budding spring foliage fits themes at this year’s event.
During the first five days of May in Boston, the new spring growth in the region will be a fitting backdrop for the signs of economic renewal sought by ANTEC attendees. Positive economic signs are pointing to a “sunnier” business climate for the event, compared with recent years. One survey reported by Plastics News indicated that 45% of reader/responders in 2010 had the attitude that the economy was “very” or “somewhat” favorable. This percentage was greater than the percentage of “unfavorable” responses; and it was much greater than the only 22% “favorable” responses in the publication’s 2009 survey.
This year’s event will couple a perhaps cautiously optimistic mood with the determination of an industry to become even more relevant in the areas of medicine, energy efficiency, and “green” materials. The sections below preview some of ANTEC 2011’s highlights and themes.
Funding the work of developing new plastics for new applications wasn’t easy in 2008–2010. During the economic crisis, many businesses focused mostly on survival, notes one of ANTEC 2011’s three plenary speakers, Tom Stanley, vice president of technology for SABIC Innovative Plastics, an ANTEC Sponsor. He says innovation “took a bit of a back seat,” at least in terms of engineering plastics development. However, “Now we’re seeing a renewed pull for innovation and technology, and the focus remains on practical needs—such as lower systems costs and enhanced performance advantages.”
In his plenary speech (Tuesday, May 3), Mr. Stanley plans to cover the drivers of product and application innovation, providing “some key examples as well as lessons-learned over the last five years.” He’ll also provide an overview of SABIC’s recent development work (with specific new material technologies introduced by the company in the technical program’s sessions; see below, under Technical Paper Program).
Monday’s plenary speaker will be Dr. Young H. Kim, a polymer scientist specializing in electronics applications, and director of the material technology center of the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology. Dr. Kim will discuss organic electronics, which, when compared with standard electronics components, allow more molecular-level design flexibility and fabrication options—plus chemical and physical stability. He’ll explain the thermal demands polymers must face when they’re used in semiconductor chips, electronic displays, photovoltaics, and thin-film transistors, for example.
ANTEC’s third plenary speaker (Wednesday, May 4) will demystify a different kind of complex issue: resin price patterns. Howard Rappaport, global business director for plastics at Houston-based consulting firm CMAI, plans to discuss the influence of new resin capacity in the world market. “The industry has been anticipating this onslaught of capacity from the Middle East and Asia in various petrochemical and plastics products,” he says. “Much of the capacity has been put in place there, but it has been delayed, there have been start-up issues, and the plants are not operating at full capacity and operating rates at this point. So this wave of additional raw material that we expected to see in the market all at one time hasn’t happened as we originally envisioned.”
Meanwhile, “the demand side of the equation is starting to come back.” In his talk, Mr. Rappaport will elaborate on how the market’s “absorption rate” of the new tons of capacity is consuming excess material in the market, meaning that resin prices have not declined as much as anticipated. He’ll also touch on how polyethylene and polypropylene dynamics have been affected differently by recent fossil-fuel price trends, and on the ways in which alternative raw feedstocks like coal and sugarcane may impact the market.
“Historic” Fundamentals Forum
Although there’s much talk in the industry about the supplies of fossil fuels on which most plastics are based, sometimes there may not be enough said about the built-up reserves of knowledge possessed by people who have participated in the development of plastics over decades.
This knowledge will be put on display by various speakers at the “Fundamentals and Fellows Forum,” a set of wide-ranging talks during the morning of Monday, May 2, by a select “who’s who” of plastics, including four SPE Fellows. The special session covers fundamental and strategic technical issues that cut across SPE divisions and SIGs, says co-organizer Vassilios Galiatsatos, leveraging the speakers’ extensive experience and knowledge.
The speakers—including very senior members of SPE—were chosen by personal invitation, adds co-organizer Lee Woo. Ernest Coleman will speak on polymer additives and modifiers; Raj Krishnaswamy will discuss bioplastics; Vadim Krongauz will cover radiation-curing and photo-curing; and Vikram Bhargava will elaborate on issues commonly overlooked by part designers. And H. Henning Winter and Peggy Cebe will discuss rheology tools and the thermal analysis of polymer nanocomposites, respectively.
“We see our session not just as a technical forum but also as a historical one, where experienced professionals share their stories and leave us with their thoughts on the future of our industry,” Galiatsatos adds. “I think that is indispensable, especially in today’s economic environment.”
New Tech Forum: Health vs. Microbes
Two of this year’s New Technology Forums dig deep into the new roles of plastics in medical applications. Besides medical implants, a growing use of polymers is for structures in tissue engineering, such as blood-vessel grafts and meshes for hernia repair, says Len Czuba, co-organizer of the “Polymers in Health Applications” forum (Tuesday, May 3).
“All these applications require very sophisticated polymers that are either extremely inert in the body, or ones that have very specific interaction in the body,” says Mr. Czuba, a Past President of SPE. “Our speakers will talk about both types of materials and help our industry look down the road at what may be the next generation of materials.” Forum presentations will discuss biopolymers used in stem-cell tissue engineering, tissue regeneration using implanted polymer nanotechnology, biomaterial systems using silk from spiders and silkworms, and surface-modified biomaterials for treating infectious diseases.
Antimicrobial plastics and additives also continue to grow in the medical field. The “Advances in Anti-Microbial Technologies for Plastics” forum on May 4 will cover the newest technologies for fighting “healthcare-acquired infection” (HAI) caused by contaminated healthcare-product surfaces. HAI is a serious problem resulting in thousands of deaths per year, and forum presenters will show how antimicrobial plastic products and textile fibers can help prevent it. Unfortunately, bacteria can become resistant to certain antimicrobial agents in plastics, and so speakers will address this issue as well.
The “Polymers in Solar & Flexible Films” New Tech Forum (Monday, May 2) will display polymers’ increasing importance in solar power and related applications. It’s a timely topic, as solar power is still seriously viewed as a major potential renewable source for satisfying the world’s energy needs.
Polymers can help expand solar’s reach, according to I. Sedat Gunes, symposium co-organizer and senior research engineer at the 3M’s Corporate Research Process Laboratory. “Solar energy has been one of the rapidly growing industries in recent decades,” he says. Moreover, “in last couple of years, the majority of governments in different parts of the world [the USA, China, Germany, and others] have announced incentives to promote solar energy investments.”
Glass, metals, and silicon are the main materials in the solar industry, but polymers are flexible and durable and support low-cost processing of photovoltaic modules. “Polymeric films can improve the efficiency of the solar cells and/or reduce the production and operating cost of the solar cells,” explains Dr. Gunes. More-efficient cell panels reduce the number of panels needed for an application, reducing installation labor costs (often critical because “in some cases, labor cost is higher than the cost of the panels”).
Along with polymer and PV experts, the forum will feature experts in “concentrated solar power,” in which reflected light super-heats water to create electricity. Session topics will cover:
• new thermally stable polymer films for flexible PV modules;
• “printable” polymeric PV cells, as alternatives to expensive silicon cells; and
• abrasion-resistant, polymer-based mirror films for concentrating light and increasing solar power output.
Technical Paper Program: Mobile Materials & More
Presentations of technical papers will cover other active areas of plastics, from non-halogenated flame retardants to bioplastics, and from polycarbonate alternatives to polymers for drug delivery. Paper submissions were up 25% over last year’s ANTEC, and over 600 papers were selected for 2011. Below is a sampling of scheduled papers from various technical sessions.
Automotive manufacturers are facing looming new CAFÉ gas-mileage standards for 2016, so it’s not surprising that there’s some emphasis on plastics’ fuel-saving roles in papers at ANTEC 2011. For example, D.A. Okonski of the General Motors Research & Development is scheduled to speak on the injection molding of the “repeating frame architecture” that holds hundreds of lithium-ion battery cells in the new Chevrolet Volt. “These repeating frames are injection molded using a hydrolysis-resistant engineering thermoplastic,” explains Okonski. “And due to very stringent battery pack assembly and packaging requirements, each repeating frame is precision molded to hold key dimensions to a tolerance that in some instances is as tight as ±0.1 mm.”
Manufacturers’ vehicles will also have to become lighter to meet mileage standards, and this objective ultimately will require using more plastics that can resist tough exterior conditions. To this end, Arkema’s H. Reid Banyay is scheduled to speak about the effects of weathering on molded-in-color plastics for exterior trim applications, including poly(methylmethacrylate) (PMMA) and acrylonitrile-styrene-acrylate (ASA), focusing on the materials’ color, gloss, surface chemistry, and physical property changes.
Taking a similar tack is Tom Pickett of General Motors, who’ll present on other harsh service conditions faced by exterior plastics. “This paper examines the scratch- and chemical-resistance of different grades of PMMA that are used for exterior automotive pillar appliqués,” explains Mr. Pickett. His testing simulated exposure to windshield washer fluid and ice-scrapers.
Technical sessions will also cover improvements in engineering polymers that have long been used for replacing metals in automotive. One paper reports on Ticona polyoxymethylene development, for instance. “This paper presents a new POM copolymer grade with mechanical properties essentially equivalent to homopolymer, while maintaining the thermal stability and chemical resistance of POM copolymers,” explains Ticona’s Robert Gronner.
Meanwhile, automotive foams, such as those for seating, are getting greener. Romeo Stanciu of Woodbridge Foam Corp. is addressing the use of bio-derived polyurethane polyols, which has thus far been limited by compatibility and reactivity factors. The research behind his paper focused on “a new generation of plant oil-based polyol” that allows up to 25% substitution of the petroleum-based polyols in PUR foam. “The technology brings significant enhancement in foam elastic properties and improved processing characteristics, allowing for a potentially higher penetration in automotive seating applications,” notes the author.
Plastic foams are also green in their common roles as lightweight thermal insulation. However, “Despite the already high performance of today’s foams, their innovation potential is still far from being tapped,” notes paper author Holger Ruckdaeschel of BASF SE. Mr. Ruckdaeschel is scheduled to present on BASF’s sustainable particle foam products in the “Innovation in Foams” program session.
Insulation foams must typically also be flame-retardant. Chung Park of Bushitol Corp. will speak on an “environmentally friendly” flame retardant for expanded polyolefin foams. This “solution of a derivative of carboxylic acid of phenylphosphonic acid” is externally applied to extruded, partially open-celled foam at a rate at 0.1 part per hundred parts of resin. This development “opens an avenue to achieving a low-cost thermal insulation material [made] from polypropylene,” notes Mr. Park.
Flame Retardant Update
Flame retardancy continues to be major topic at ANTEC, as reflected by a special session of papers from the various company members of PINFA, the Phosphorus, Inorganic, & Nitrogen Flame Retardants Association, a sector group started in 2009 by the European Chemical Industry Council.
The sessions will provide an overview of non-halogenated FRs, and of some application-specific technical developments, such as FRs for wire & cable, electronics enclosures and connectors, printed circuit boards, and construction. Speaking on electronics equipment, a team of presenters will discuss the challenges of using non-halogenated FRs with styrenic polymers (such as HIPS and ABS). Another PINFA team will present on the use of FRs in thermosets for printed circuit boards and other composites. And another session will cover FR options for construction materials and insulation; this will mention various materials: polystyrene and polyurethane foam insulation, wood-plastic composites, floor coverings, FR coatings for protecting wood and steel, and lighting and fixtures that use polycarbonate.
PC (and Its Alternatives)
Polycarbonate is the direct (or indirect) focus of several ANTEC papers. Even with the negative media attention about PC and BPA, PC continues to have a wide range of use. For example, with a hardcoat applied, molded PC is useful as a lightweight glazing alternative to glass. To expand this use, Chengtao Li of Dart Container Corp. will report on the effect of molded-in stresses on the impact-resistance and microcracking of hardcoats on weathered and aged polycarbonate.
PC weatherability will also be addressed by Paul Sybert of SABIC Innovative Plastics. He is scheduled to speak on the company’s opaque Lexan SLX1432 polycarbonate copolymer for injection molding and cap-layer applications. The material is based partly on resorcinol phthalates—creating a “photo-generated” UV absorber that forms on the part surface. (Other materials-related papers presented by SABIC at ANTEC concern high-heat PC grades for medical autoclave sterilization; flame-retardant PBT/PC blends; and hydrolysis-resistant, high-impact polyetherimide blends.)
Meanwhile, research and development continues for PC-like resin alternatives. Mark Treece of Eastman Chemical Co. is scheduled to talk about the company’s Tritan copolyesters and ABS blends, comparing them with molding grades of polycarbonate and PC/ABS. The researcher evaluated molded-in residual stress levels of these materials, finding that the copolyester/blend parts generally show lower stress levels than in PC-based products.
PC and a copolyester were also compared in a medical-related ANTEC paper submitted by Pierre Moulinie of Bayer MaterialScience. Here, two of the company’s medical PC grades and a copolyester were studied after exposure to gamma-radiation sterilization. In an abstract of the paper, Mr. Moulinie reports that the PC generally retained its properties, though its color shifts were greater than what was observed for the medical copolyester.
Medical plastics papers will also focus on softer grades of materials. Anthony Walder of Lubrizol Advanced Materials, Inc., is scheduled to present on a super-soft thermoplastic polyurethane having a Shore durometer of only 62A. “The softest TPUs historically used in medical applications exhibit a Shore durometer above 70A,” Mr. Walder notes, adding that the new TPU’s softness is achieved without the use of plasticizers.
A Plethora of Bioplastics
As at recent ANTECs, multiple papers related to bioplastics were submitted and accepted; and they are so varied that they generally cannot be previewed here in great detail. A quick sampling of some scheduled papers (plus their authors and/or organizations) reveals these topics:
• the testing of and factors related to the biodegradability of poly(hydroxy butanoic acid) (PHB) copolymers in various environments—including soil, fresh water, seawater, compost, and anaerobic digesters (Xiudong Sun, Telles);
• the thermal characteristics of TPUs and thermosets based on polyols made from renewable succinic acid, compared with those made from conventional adipic acid (Steven Guillaudeu, The Dow Chemical Co.);
• a blend of polypropylene and thermoplastic starch melt-blended in a tandem extruder, producing a bio-blend with “co-continuous morphology” (Gregory Anderson, Teknor Apex Co.);
• compostable colorants for poly(lactic acid) (PLA) and other biopolymers, with a range of chemistries (Douglas Koerner, Keystone Aniline Corp.);
• the performance of polypropylene reinforced with low-cost flax fiber (James Preston, RheTech Inc.); and
• the profitability of sustainability: three sessions that cover “green” market opportunities, relevant government contracts, and even the use of social media in marketing (ITECS Innovative Consulting, Aspen Research Corp., and Martin Thomas International).
The sum-total knowledge about plastics recycling will also receive a boost at ANTEC. Anthony Georges of AMUT North America is scheduled to report on latest technology in sorting and cleaning of post-consumer mixed PET bales, and then converting the cleaned r-PET flakes into food-grade resin. The operation uses “Solid State Post-Condensation” and a patented purification and pelletizing process, reportedly producing r-PET with increased intrinsic viscosity and US-FDA letter of non-objection status.
The chemical recovery of post-consumer recycled PET can also be used to create “environmentally progressive” PBT-based materials, according to a paper by Rama Konduri of SABIC. “These products’ manufacturing processes require less energy and non-renewable fossil fuels, as opposed to the manufacturing processes of conventional fossil fuel-based materials,” notes the author.
And Minho Jeon of SK Energy will speak about the difficult-to-categorize green polymer: polypropylene carbonate. PPC is an amorphous polymer made by the alternating copolymerization of carbon dioxide and propylene oxide. The company’s proprietary technology is said to use a “highly active” catalyst for polymerization, producing PPC in a pilot plant since 2008 with the trade name GreenPol. Mr. Jeon’s paper describes multiple key properties of PPC.
Testing & Simulation
New analysis technologies explained at ANTEC focus on polymer microstructures. Marissa Libbee of Gatan, Inc., will present a nondestructive method for analyzing polymer/fiber materials using a scanning electron microscope combined with an X-ray microscope to collect and then combine a series of images, generating a 3-D “reconstruction” of structures of interest.
Authors from Anasys Instruments will present on their own microanalysis techniques. Khoren Sahagian will discuss the use of a nanoscale thermal probe to measure thermal transition temperatures across microscopic areas of a polymer. And the company’s Michael Lo will describe the combining of atomic force microscopy and infrared spectroscopy to provide sub-micron resolution in IR spectra and images. This method can reportedly reveal, for example, distinctions between crystalline and amorphous domains within a single spherulite.
Meanwhile, molding simulation technologies are being adapted for alternative plastics-forming processes. Authors from Autodesk will show how three-dimensional simulation can be used with injection-compression molding, just as it is with standard injection molding. This allows comparisons of parts made with the two processes in terms of warpage, injection pressure, and clamp force. In a related paper topic, TzuChau Chen of Coretech will reportedly describe how 3-D simulation can predict optical quality in injection-compression-molded plastic lenses.
Lasers Tuned for Plastics
Concluding this brief preview of the technical paper program is a word about the several ANTEC papers on the laser welding of plastics. Commercial and university researchers are presenting on various aspects of laser welding in one comprehensive session, explaining methods for welding fiber-reinforced thermoplastics and medical plastics, revealing how laser energy affects or even degrades polymers, and informing on proper process controls. All this work, plus topics and papers not mentioned above, will contribute to helping plastics penetrate new application areas.