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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Materials & technologies projects > Large scale approach lands composite prize
Graphic element Large scale approach lands composite prize

UK boat manufacturer Halmatic won the JEC Composite 2000 transport innovation prize in Paris for the world's first glass-reinforced thermoplastic boats. The competition was open to companies from any country that had developed an exceptional composite solution in terms of technical quality, market openings and customer/supplier partnership. The Halmatic boats are one of the first results of a three-year development project, funded by the European Commission, to develop an environmentally friendly replacement for GRP (glass-reinforced polyester).

The ENVIROCOMP project involves the low pressure moulding of continuous glass-fibre-reinforced thermoplastic mats and offers a totally new way of fabricating large surface area structures. This material offers excellent mechanical performance and is easy to recycle - and there are no solvent emissions during processing.

Replacement for hand lay-up GRP

Fibre-reinforced plastics (FRP) have grown to dominate the market for large scale structures in all types of transport but particularly in boatbuilding. In Western Europe alone, over 300,000 tonnes of FRP marine products are made each year in open moulds using the hand lay-up or contact moulding process. This involves laying down layers of glass fibre matting impregnated with a liquid resin in an open mould to build up the required thickness.

However, 90% of these products use polyester resins contain high levels of styrene monomer, a solvent that is emitted during the manufacturing process. The styrene also makes it difficult to store the resins. Styrene emissions are a major problem when working in large open moulds as ventilation is often difficult and expensive - and personal ventilators are uncomfortable to wear.

Increasingly stringent health and safety regulations have already reduced acceptable styrene levels in the workplace to typically below 50 ppm in most of Europe. Even tougher 25 ppm limits in Scandinavia are leading to widescale abandonment of GRP boat building in many area. And levels similar to those in Scandinavia are expected to be introduced throughout the EU in new Commission directives.

Environmentally acceptable alternative

A group led by UK composite materials design and development specialist Euro-Projects therefore set out to develop an environmentally acceptable alternative. Partners included boat and wind-turbine manufacturers, materials suppliers, research institutes and certification organisations from Denmark, France, Germany and the UK. The result of the project was a switch to a thermoplastic process that is clean and efficient - and poses no solvent emission problems.
The ENVIROCOMP process is based on the use of Twintex, a co-mingled strand of glass and polypropylene (PP) fibres - 60% glass/40% PP - developed by French glass specialist Vetrotex. The strands are woven into a fabric which can then be draped into a mould together with any cores or inserts and heated to around 190ºC. The polypropylene then melts. A vacuum is applied to ensure that the glass fibres are properly 'wetted' or impregnated by the molten thermoplastic.

"Advantages include much cleaner processing, the ability to recycle offcuts and complete mouldings (so avoiding landfill costs), resistance to water and chemical attack, and much better impact performance and delamination resistance than polyester," claims Gerry Boyce of Euro-Projects. "And while material costs are the same as polyester, there is much less labour involved as it possible to achieve the desired thickness with one shot."

  Encouraging technology transfer

Boyce sees a wide range of applications for the ENVIROCOMP process in areas other than boatbuilding - including automotive applications, wind turbine blades, flagpoles and refrigerated trailer doors.

The ENVIROCOMP group itself has developed a considerable amount of know-how on sandwich panel technology and thermoplastic composite material processing - including mould-tool design, processing conditions, surface finishing, fabric configurations, bonding and joining, and mechanical properties. It is now keen to encourage wider use of this technology by organising technology transfer events, seminars and workshops, and by providing turnkey systems.

Replacement for hand lay-up GRP
Environmentally acceptable alternative
Encouraging technology transfer

Key data

Composites play an important role both in the Innovative products, processes and organisation key action and in the Materials and their technologies for production and transformation generic activity.

The success of European Commission-funded work in this area can be seen in the prize-winning technology developed by the ENVIROCOMP project, which is already finding applications in boatbuilding.

Project: ENVIROCOMP - Research, development and evaluation of environmentally friendly advanced thermoplastic composites for the manufacture of large surface area structures (BRPR960228)

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