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|Promoting co-operation in polymer research|
In December 1997, the European Commission formally approved the formation of a Targeted Research Action (TRA) to promote collaborative research and technology development between process industries and research institutes in the polymer materials sector. The resultant network initially brought together some 30 Commission-funded research projects from the Brite Euram , CRAFT and GROWTH programmes, involving around 150 research institutions, SMEs and large corporations. However, its structure is flexible enough to admit new projects, or allow completed initiatives to leave, as appropriate.
The demand for polymer materials continues to grow year-on-year in Western Europe. According to the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe (APME), plastics consumption reached 33.6 million tonnes by 1999. The industry - including producers, converters and machinery manufacturers - employs 1.1 million people and generates annual sales worth over €135 billion.
In 1998, some 37% of all plastics used in Europe was employed in packaging, with consumption expected to rise from 12.1 million tonnes in 1998 to 16.1 million tonnes by 2005. Construction was the second largest outlet, accounting for 20%. The electrical/ electronics industry absorbed 9%; automotive 8%; sports and leisure 3%; agriculture 2% and miscellaneous applications the remaining 21%.
Other major polymeric materials covered by the 54-month polymer materials TRA (TRA-PM) include rubber, paints, coatings and composites.
Overall co-ordination is the responsibility of E3T Consult , of The Netherlands, while individual cluster co-ordinators manage their particular sectoral activities - dealing with information transfer between partners, identification of synergy and initiation of interaction between projects.
The flexible structure of the TRA has enabled a total of 48 projects to be admitted to date, involving the participation of more than 300 research institutes, SMEs and large corporations.
In addition to annual cluster meetings presenting project-level progress updates and discussing prospective goals, various activities of broader scope involve the full network and create bridges to the outside world.
These are designed to:
In yearly two-day workshops that are the principal showcase for TRA-PM activities, participants from all four clusters present their own projects and debate more general issues such as the added value of co-operative research. Round table meetings are also organised, at which delegates from industry, government and society in general are invited to discuss current trends and identify challenges for future research.
A quarterly newsletter informing participants and other interested parties about the TRA currently has over 450 subscribers. As indicated, this is published on the TRA-PM website (http://www.tra-pm.org/), which, also contains: general information on the network; specific news on projects, partners and reference libraries; a list of events; e-mail discussion groups and links to relevant sites.
The following offers a brief overview of the completed and on-going work, and highlights several successful initiatives:
This cluster is the most 'scientific' part of TRA-PM. Its 13 current and completed projects are related to polymer chemistry and engineering, covering areas such as mechano-chemical blending, structure and rheology, reaction engineering and process design, and polymer foaming.
An excellent example of achievement is the way in which three rheology-related projects - ART , MPFLOW and LCB Polyolefins - have co-operated to produce an advanced tool for the prediction of structure-property relations in complex polymer systems.
The advent of metallocene catalyst technology for the production of polyolefins has, within recent decades, allowed the tailoring of specific properties. To meet the needs of converters and end-users, is necessary to predict rheological behaviour of polymers - particularly the melt flow characteristics of complex systems in processing equipment - on the basis of their molecular structures.
All three projects dealt with approaches to identify such structure-property relations, and to develop predictive design tools. Dow , as a partner in each, merged the results into a common code in order to produce the advanced rheological tool. This is now reckoned to constitute the world state-of-the-art, and has permitted the development of at least two new products.
The IGESI (industrial prototype for gluing shoe components by means of a thermoplastic film) project brought together a number of SMEs to address the problems of using solvent-based adhesives to join shoe uppers to soles. The partners were able to replace traditional glues with a hot-melt adhesive film fused by microwaves. Development of new prototype technology, based on patents obtained by co-ordinator C.G.S., a small Italian consulting company, targets shoe manufacturers that are themselves mostly SMEs.
The partners have shown that, by heating the adhesive with a simple microwave facility and joining the parts in slightly modified standard presses, gluing time can be reduced from two hours to ten seconds. The advantages in terms of cost reduction and increased productivity are evident.
A media campaign in the shoe-producing region of Tuscany prepared the ground for general acceptance by the industry, and current production of materials and equipment should lead to speedy commercialisation within the EU.
Cluster co-ordinator Lutz Göthlich comments: "Although IGESI is not typical of the development work within this cluster, its success is an excellent example of a well-conceived basic idea from a co-ordinating company that recognised an apparent technology gap, of competent management, and of professionally organised dissemination."
Since the 1990s, the paint and coatings industry has made significant advances in adopting safer and more sophisticated manufacturing practices, as well as in introducing more environment-friendly products. One notable trend is the move from solvent-borne to water-based technology. However, to deliver products with optimum properties and extended applications, further improvements are needed.
Cluster 2, comprising 12 continuing and finished projects, focuses on reducing the environmental impact of polymeric coating and adhesive systems. Common technology themes include the use of renewable material sources, novel aqueous emulsion surface chemistry, and the development of technologies enhancing the viability of water-based coatings.
VOC (visible light curable latex and heavily pigmented coating systems), co-ordinated by Greek resin specialist Interchem-Hellas , is a typical example of the drive to switch from solvent-based to aqueous systems. The project partners have suggested an innovative approach using slow curing of polymer films under the influence of visible light or UV radiation. This has led to the production of materials with improved performance and zero volatile organic content.
The main target of the project itself was to provide a binder system with a post-cure possibility. Novel coating systems were subsequently formulated, with properties comparable those of conventional products used in indoor/outdoor paints and metal decoration. Final optimisation of the new polymers under realistic industrial conditions will enable the industrial partners to initiate the commercialisation procedure, while the identification of further potential applications could attract interest from other market sectors.
The POLYSURF (polymerisable and polymeric surfactants in emulsion polymerisation for waterborne coatings) project, co-ordinated by the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique has developed a paint formulation for wood-stain finishes, using a simple maleic surfactant prepared by the condensation of a C12 fatty alcohol on maleic anhydride. This exhibits improved blocking and weatherability, as well as enhanced wet adhesion, without detrimental effects on the other properties such as gloss, hardness or elasticity. The formulation is also suitable for printing inks and metal coating applications, and could prove acceptable for paper coating.
A patent was secured by Akzo Nobel Resins and; following testing by selected users, marketing of the formulation is now in progress. Another patent was deposited by the Max Planck Institute on the use of sulphonated polydienes, as stabilisers in emulsion polymerisation.
Further improvements were obtained during the latter stages of the programme, using block-copolymers of sulphonated polybutadiene or polyoxyethylene to give both electrostatic and steric stabilisation properties.
Several sets of new surfactants derived from maleic or succinic anhydrides were prepared by the Latvian academic partner. Two of these are now commercially available, and another shows promise for industrial application.
Polymer composites typically consist of a fibre reinforcing component embedded in a binding polymer matrix. The resultant materials combine light weight with high strength and corrosion resistance, making them ideal for a huge variety of applications - from surfboards, car parts and electronic equipment, to structural components for construction and aerospace.
Since the composition of the composites and the fields of use are so diverse, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ten projects in this cluster proved to have relatively little common ground. For this reason, the collaboration was terminated before the end of the TRA. The cluster as a whole nevertheless organised a 'High level strategy forum on composite materials' at the international JEC Composites Show in Paris, while initiatives that were completed before the disbanding have produced positive results.
The INTERPHASE (interphase characterisation and study of structure-property relations of fibre-reinforced polymers) thematic network, co-ordinated by the Institute of Polymer Research Dresden , linked various research strands pursuing the development of lightweight composites for a competitive 'car of tomorrow'. Its technical objective was to develop new and rational means of characterising the interfaces between polymer matrices and reinforcing fibres, in order to define structure-property relationships that could be used to advantage in producing tailor-made composite materials.
Various micro-mechanical (fibre fragmentation, pull-out, micro-indentation, micro-debond) and macro-mechanical (tensile, bending, shear, impact, dynamic loading) test methods were applied to determine the characteristics of fibre-matrix interaction. Comprehensive experimental investigations provided input to computational mechanics activities aimed at modelling failure mechanisms and interpreting causes of such interaction.
The DYNACOMP (dynamically loaded filament wound composite parts tailored for hot and wet environments) project set out to construct tools for the design of dynamically loaded filament-wound carbon fibre/epoxy and glass-fibre/epoxy composites that would offer adequate durability when subjected to high cycle fatigue and/or hostile environments.
This issue is of major importance for industry, because filament winding provides a very inexpensive way to manufacture composite laminates. A modern paper machine, for example, uses many rolls that are subject to high cycle fatigue. These components are also often exposed to environmental conditions including moisture, high temperature and corrosive agents.
The main aim of the project, co-ordinated by Finnish paper company Metso Paper , was to acquire the data needed to simulate the overall durability of future composite structures in modern paper machines and composite insulators. Its end result was an experimentally verified concept for the production of components with an ideal void-free structure, bringing high durability in hot and wet environments.
Sufficient data now is now available to permit simulation and monitoring of the overall durability of future composite structures, enabling manufacturers to fine-tune various parameters during production.
Polymer production is estimated to absorb around 4% of the world's oil. However, through their use in applications such as thermal insulation, lightweight automotive components and packaging, plastics contribute to a net reduction in fossil fuel consumption and generation of greenhouse gases. Despite this, recycling and reuse remain high-priority issues in the broad context of sustainable development.
Subjects of the 13 projects embraced by the fourth cluster of TRA-PM include sorting and separation technologies, recycling of plastics, recycling of rubber, upgrading and use of polymer recyclates, and biodegradable polymers. The group has organised four two-day workshops, one of which was conducted jointly with a cluster from the TRAWMAR TRA on waste minimisation and recycling, dealing with end-of-life materials processing and recovery.
In the RECAM (sustainable closed loop system for recycling of carpet materials) project, the DSM -led consortium developed technologies that together form a sustainable closed loop system for the recycling and reuse of carpet materials, as well as for energy recovery from post-consumer and post-industrial waste.
A direct outcome of the project is the introduction of two materials identification devices based on the use of near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy. CarPID, a portable unit for manual carpet sorting, and the high-speed CarRID for automated sorting are both capable of distinguishing between polyamide-6, polyamide-6.6, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and wool.
The portable NIR technology may also find its way to more areas of plastics waste identification, because it can adapted to other polymer materials and surface types than those encountered in carpet waste.
In the field of chemical recycling, a new de-polymerisation technology for polymaide-6 carpets has been developed, requiring only a size reduction step as pre-treatment. The resulting caprolactam can be purified to virgin material, which makes possible an infinite closed loop recovery of the material. Based on the results obtained, DSM is planning to build a caprolactam recovering plant in Europe within the next five years, and is investigating other sources of polyamide-6 as feedstock.
The ELREC project, led by ERA Technology in the UK, has developed versatile new electrostatic technologies for the separation of dry materials that were previously indistinguishable, or separable only by manual sorting. These advances are particularly applicable to plastics segregation.
The new technologies have been demonstrated at pilot plant scale at the Gaiker technology centre in Spain. They were used to separate Tetrabrik packages from mixed plastics, polyethylene and polypropylene from a floating output fraction, and polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene terephthalate from a sinking fraction. Separation of polyethylene and polypropylene has also been evaluated at pre-production scale by Ragn-Sells in Sweden. Both plants have demonstrated the potential viability of the process.
"At the last round table meeting, cluster 4 was evaluated as very successful, with good participation and exchange of information both inside and outside TRA-PM," observes TRA administrator Jarno Dakhorst, of E3T Consult. "The participation of SMEs is also high compared with that in other clusters."
Overall, it can be seen that the integration of projects into a larger entity such as TRA-PM is able to bring added value in terms of increased distribution of mutually relevant information among the partners, and provision of a platform for interaction with new contacts and ideas. Coherence between running projects is also improved, so that synergy and common themes or sub-themes can be identified and stimulated. And for the European Commission, the benefit lies in optimised use of knowledge to strengthen industrial competitiveness, create employment opportunities and respond to societal needs.