Rapid Advances in Polymeric Composites – rendering technological myths redundant

Hello again,

Unseasonal weather in many regions especially since the beginning of 2014, has once again brought discussions on climate change and global warming to the fore. The fact that predictions are already in place for a warmer-than-normal summer in several parts of Europe, North America lend credence to the global warming phenomenon.

ADAPTATION IS THE KEY

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They say wine gets better with age, but the regions we typically associate with its production could be in for a major shakeup due to climate change over the next few decades. Researchers are predicting a two-thirds decline in production in the Bordeaux and Rhone regions in France, Tuscany, Italy and Napa Valley in California by 2050 due to global warming that will make it more difficult to grow grapes. Instead, regions once considered inhospitable to grape production will take over-including Northern Europe (Britain too), the U.S. North West and central China [Design&Trend]. The United Nations’ latest report on climate change states it is inevitable and that countries need to start thinking of managing the same [The Atlantic]. Protagonists of green energy would perhaps state that this is a tacit reference to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by embracing wind energy, greater reliance on CNG, reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through fuel efficiency of automobiles enabled (among others) by greater use of lightweight plastics and composites etc.

The key word is adaptation rather than mitigation.

 COMPOSITES – GROWTH ENGINE

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The emphasis on manufacturing innovation in composites to accelerate growth in commercial applications has been spelt out clearly by the late March announcement of the U.S. proposing a Composites Industry Institute christened as Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute with the federal government offering $70 million in funding that has to be matched. In its call for proposals for an institute that focuses on overcoming the barriers to greater widespread use of advanced composites, the Department of Energy (DOE) says it is pursuing the promise of composite materials. Industry analysts predict the global carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) market to grow to $25.2 billion by 2019 and glass fiber reinforcements to reach $16.4 billion by 2016 [Plastics News]. The goal of the new institute will be to lower the cost of advanced composites by 50%, reduce the energy to make composites by 75% and increase recyclability to more than 95% within 10 years.

What better news can the composites industry hope for ?

 SHIPPING CONTAINERS IN CFRP

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At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commissions’s Joint Research Center detailed how CFRP could revolutionize the shipping container market segment, (hitherto the domain of steel) based on Life-cycle Cost Benefit Analysis – the  successful proven mantra in the composites industry. Looking at the analysis…….while a composite container may cost EUR 6,000 ($8,300) versus EUR 2,200 ($3,050) for a steel container; at a diesel fuel cost of EUR 1.60 per liter ($8.40/gallon), the composite container would break even after the container has travelled 120,000 km (74,500 miles) on sheer weight considerations alone – 1.2 Tonnes vs. 2.2 Tonnes for steel, with the inevitable advantage of corrosion resistance, the bane of steel. The icing on the cake ? Composite containers could also potentially be foldable and hence could be laid flat on their return to China [Plastics Today]. In 2006, Congress passed a law in America requiring all containers arriving into American seaports (from foreign shores) be scanned for illicit materials and illegal immigrants. But the deadline for compliance continues to be pushed back due to technical issues: scanning steel requires high power X-rays or even gamma rays which are expensive to generate and hazardous. CFRP containers, however, can be scanned with “soft” X-rays that are easier to generate and use.

A revolution in the making in storming the steel bastion ?

Air Cargo Containers was granted Technical Standard Order (TSO C90d) certification for its lightweight composite AMJ model Unit Load Device (ULD) in December 2013. It is the first all-composite container to receive this certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is constructed of proprietary composite side panels and floor panel, built around an aerospace grade aluminum frame for lightness and durability as well as improved maintenance characteristics and flame retardant capability. Tare weight is 480 lbs which is 350 lbs less than competing aluminum containers. Weight savings achieved is around 42% [Plastics Today].

THERMOPLASTICS VERSATILITY

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Processing of liquid thermoplastic resins by RTM is now a commercial reality. The formulated resins from Arkema are based on various oligomers, monomers, additives, catalysts and fillers. Targeted cycle times in the automotive sector are 2-3 minutes using fast RTM and 20-30 minutes for for bus and truck components. The density of the composite ranges from 1.55 with carbon fiber (60% volume) to 1.9 with glass fiber (50% volume). Unlike unsaturated polyesters, the resins do not contain styrene. The thermoplastic characteristics enable design of composite parts that are easily thermoformed and recyclable with comparable mechanical performance to epoxy parts [Plastics Today].

Technological advances abound in structural adhesive solutions for bonding lightweight materials including CFRP in the automotive sector. Recent formulations of Dow‘s adhesive offer a cycle time of around one minute facilitating mass series production. Open time can be adjusted to accommodate specific mounting requirements such as quicker curing time by infra-red treatment. The fact that the initial adhesion requires no additional fixing tools is an added advantage [Plastics Today].

 WIND ENERGY ECONOMICS – REVELATIONS

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There has always been several schools of thought when it comes to discussing the real benefits of wind energy, costwise. Latest research (March 2014) from top American universities has found that when total costs include environmental impacts, U.S. wind energy costs virtually the same as natural gas. A collaborative study from the University of California and Syracuse University examines price differentials between American wind energy and natural gas, when long-term factors such as the future costs of carbon dioxide emissions are accounted for [Climate Group]. Supplementing data from the U.S. Department of Energy on the current lifetime “levelized” cost of electricity from a new wind farm and from an advanced combined cycle gas plant, the research project has factored three additional aspects – future cost of carbon dioxide emissions added to the price of gas, cost of supply intermittency added to price of wind and cost of correcting natural gas price volatility added to price of gas. On adjusting figures to reflect these three conditions, the new average levelized cost of electricity from wind is 9.2cents/kWh – a tad higher than natural gas’s 8.85cents/kWh. The result is even more favorable for wind if one considers some of the larger possible values for carbon emissions.

The interesting fact with such studies is that all forms of variables that affect the ultimate economics are factored in arriving at a realistic comparison, with less room for any bias.

 BENZENE – OPTIONAL ROUTE

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In my last post, I had stated that it may be worthwhile looking at an alternate route to benzene to combat the looming styrene shortage and its effect on unsaturated polyesters/vinyl ester resin prices. With the current natural gas glut in the U.S. (potentially to be followed by the UK, Australia and China), the development of high performance ceramic membranes has opened up the distinct possibility of of converting natural gas to benzene. Once commercialized, this approach could reduce the practice of flaring natural gas (across the world) which wastes about 140 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Oil wells in remote areas often use flaring, because transporting the natural gas to markets would be very expensive [MIT Technology Review].

Jointly with Hyundai Motor, Lotte, Korea has developed superlight CFRP composites for the main frame, roof&door side panels for Hyundai’s Intrado concept car that was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March and achieved a weight reduction of around 60%. Through its unique structure, the thermoset composite  manufactured using high-pressure RTM, has the strength equivalent to steel [Plastics Today].

Conventional techniques such as milling or water-jet cutting suffer high levels of tool wear when machining CFRP composites, negating, to some extent the gains in efficiency and life-cycle cost that  it promises. A new automated laser processing technique for CFRP structures in mass production scenarios is currently in the works, thanks to Volkswagen‘s initiative in spearheading a joint consortium effort. The goal is to employ a new fiber-guided, high performance laser with pulse lengths in the nanosecond range. As CFRP contains both stiff fibers and sticky polymers, the fibers lead to wear on mechanical tools such as mills and cutters, while the sticky polymer increases the deterioration of the tool by blocking the rake and clearance angle. Water jet machining is also problematic as it requires the use of abrasive materials which might remain in the cutting edge and initiate contact corrosion. A laser-based operation should avoid tool-wear issues entirely, cutting instead through laser ablation. In such an operation, a short interaction with the workpiece is clearly beneficial – the option is still to use nanosecond pulses rather than the even faster femtosecond sources being deployed in other material processing applications. With shorter interaction on the surface, the plasma plume can expand in all directions. But with thicker material, the plasma can expand in only one direction – up. This slows down the expansion process and leads to an increased heat input. Further, economics is also a factor since ultra-fast sources are more expensive than nano-second pulsed systems. Critically, it is the investment required per Watt of average output that could be the driving force in decision-making [Optics].

 AND THE WINNER IS…….

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At least 14 billion pounds of new polyethylene (PE) capacity are anticipated for North America by 2018 as producers look to capitalize on growing supplies of low-cost natural gas supplies in the region. As this amount is more than the domestic market will be able to absorb, part of the new capacity will need to be exported and PE prices are likely to decline. In polypropylene (PP), new supplies of propylene monomer from the propane dehydrogenation (PDH) route through one (current) PP expansion project in the region. About 3 billion pounds of new capacity will eventually transpire in the next few years, which could also lead to increased PP exports from North America and make prices competitive in the long run [Plastics News].

The battle of the polyolefins will be intense in the coming years. Whether PP will prevail is definitely a moot point at this stage, as the economics of the PDH route have yet to be commercially proven.

MORE THAN A GLIMMER

Stay optimistic on ESSJAY COMPOSITES

With the uptick in global economy, the timing is just right for  companies to draw up expansion plans for organic growth and/or make strategic acquisitions that have synergistic benefits for a robust 2015 and thereafter. There are definite signs of the eurozone recovery with many countries within the EU reporting a slew of economic data that is most encouraging. The stockmarket has been on a tear lately prompting the Cassandras to speak of an impending bubble.

But, hey, the show must go on and the projected optimistic scenario should make us all sport a wide smile.

Till the next post,

Cheers,

S. Sundaram

EmailSS@essjaycomposites.com

Twitter@essjaycomposite

Website: www.essjaycomposites.com

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