Fibre polymer composite (FPC) materials are gaining popularity in the polymers sector, business incubator ChemCity polymers unit business support manager Hennie Roets reports.
He explains that, although FPCs are not a new technology, the market has matured enough to make it economically viable to ramp up production and to further develop this versatile and durable composite material.
“During the past three years, we have noticed a significant growth in the number of polymer composite manufacturers globally, signifying an international trend to find environmentally sustainable materials. Globally, it is the right time for this material to be fully exploited,” he says.
Further, ChemCity reports that polypropylene is still a growing market; however, new applications are limited. FPC is, however, one area where growth can take place with innovative products and applications.
Roets explains that the polymer industry has been adding inert fillers to polymer mixtures to reduce the amount of polymer in the final product to reduce costs. Experiments have led to manufacturers adding fibres to the polymer mixtures and, besides other differentiating characteristics, discovering that it has significantly improved several of the mechanical properties of the final product.
“The fibres are mostly renewable, as natural materials, such as cotton, wheat chuff and wood fibres, are added to the mixtures. Although wood plastic composites have been around for some time, the inclusion of other renewable fibres has expanded the range of FPCs,” Roets explains.
He adds that the polymers industry is excited about the versatility of FPCs, as it is able to precisely manipulate the composites to have the characteristics that the end product requires. He points to the chassis and body of a Formula One racing car, built entirely from polymer composites, as an example of how strong and versatile certain composites have become.
“Certain composites now have the characteristics of steel, but are considerably lighter than steel,” he says.
The versatility of some engi- neering composites (carbon fibre) is evident in research undertaken by the Cape University of Tech-nology, where researchers developed a prototype aviation wing, with conductors embedded in the composite material. The result is that the shape and form of the wing can be manipulated by running a current through the appropriate conductors, opening up many possibilities for avionics, Roets reports.
Meanwhile, the use of FPCs can potentially reduce the reliance on finite hardwood resources for products such as garage doors. “FPCs are, by far, more durable than wood and are more rodent-, insect- and waterproof. It looks like wood and, although the capital cost for products made from this material may be initially more, the lifetime costs are significantly reduced,” he says.
FPCs provide an ideal alternative building material as manufacturers are able to add various chemicals to it, giving the mate- rial different characteristics, such as being fireproof, and, thereby, adding to its versatility.
Roets notes that FPC development is linked to polymer development, where the building of molecules gives almost carte blanche regarding what can be achieved. Manu-facturers can experiment with the material and even reduce the polymer content further from the present 25% to 30% and thereby significantly reduce costs.
The applications of FPCs are almost limitless. Popular developmental applications are alternatives to ornamental wood in cars and wood in kitchens and bathrooms around washbasins, owing to its durability and, specifically, water resistance.
Roets reports that ChemCity is currently developing traffic sign poles with an entrepreneur; these poles will fracture on impact, making them a safer alternative to steel. It would also be instantly replaceable, while the fractured pole can be fully recycled. Other products under research and development include beehives, alternative building materials, owing to their improved insulation characteristics, industrial pallets with increased life spans, decking and caskets.
“We have entered an exciting time owing to the potential for new businesses and employment opportunities that could be created, although I do not expect these developments to replace any existing businesses,” he says.
In fact, ChemCity had to consider, with its assisted entrepreneurs, how to effectively market the new materials. “We had to decide whether FPCs are part of the plastics, steel or wood sectors, owing to the fact that they could have qualities of all three,” he notes.
Further, ChemCity is busy establishing a plastics standard for FPCs. Roets explains that ChemCity wants to assist FPC manufacturers in getting it right from the start. “We are developing techniques with the entrepreneur to handle the materials, as the data is limited at this stage,” he says.
ChemCity is currently assisting entrepreneurs in developing products made from FPCs that are suitable for long-term use in South Africa. An alliance with the University of the North West and the Department of Trade and Industry to test the quality of FPCs and associated products resulted in the establishment of a centre of excellence in advanced manufacturing at Potchefstroom.
“We assist entrepreneurs in detecting and solving problems with the material and products to assist them in presenting bank-able business plans for funding,” he concludes.