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New composite sets sail

  

The thousands of small boatbuilders that flourish along the coasts and waterways of Europe will benefit from a clean, high-performance technology for moulding composite materials. An innovation which is sure to spread to many other sectors.

    
  

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The Envirocomp solution is a thermoplastic process based on polypropylene. The process eliminates all the solvent pollution problems.

In April, UK boatbuilder Halmatic won the renowned 'JEC Composite 2000' transport innovation prize for the first boats produced using low-pressure moulding of continuous glass-fibre-reinforced polypropylene mats. The result of a European project, Envircomp,(1) this new composite offers an alternative to traditional moulding techniques for classical glass-reinforced polyester structures, a process which raises important problems for the environment and health protection in shipyards.

Avoiding styrene emissions
In the EU alone, over 300 000 tonnes of polyester marine products are made each year. The process involves laying down by hand layers of glass-fibre matting impregnated with a liquid resin in an open mould.

Such products contain high levels of styrene monomer, a harmful solvent both for the environment and for health, and require strict measures for ventilation and removing emissions from the workplace. National regulations have already reduced acceptable styrene levels in the workplace to typically below 50 ppm in most of Europe. Even tougher levels are expected in new Commission directives.

In such a regulatory context causing increasing problems in the boat-building sector, the objective of the Envirocomp research consortium was to develop a technological alternative able to eliminate this solvent problem. The project was led by UK composite materials specialist Euro-Projects, and partners included boatbuilders, wind-turbine manufacturers, materials suppliers, research institutes and certification organisations from Denmark, France, Germany and the UK.

Using co-mingled glass and PP fibres
The Envirocomp solution is a thermoplastic process based not on polyester but on another polymer: polypropylene (PP). One of the partners, the French company Vetrotex, developed the Twintex composite, made of co-mingled strands of glass and PP fibres. The Twintex strands are woven into a fabric that is draped into a mould together with any cores or inserts and heated to melt the PP. A vacuum ensures the glass fibres are properly impregnated by the molten thermoplastic.

'The process eliminates all the solvent pollution problems. Moreover, advantages include cleaner processing, the ability to recycle offcuts and complete mouldings, resistance to water and chemical attack, and better impact performance and delamination resistance than polyester', claims Gerry Boyce of Euro-Projects. '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.'

Focused European research

Polymer composites offer many benefits, including part integration, weight saving, safety and durability. Intensive research into material properties, improved production technologies and recycling is paying major dividends in automotive, aeronautics, construction and marine applications. Envirocomp is one of numerous examples of projects within the Targeted Research Action (TRA) on polymer materials, which consists of clusters of research projects funded by the European Union under the Brite-EuRam and Craft programmes. The network involves some 150 research institutions, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and large companies as well as relevant trade associations.


(1) Research, development and evaluation of environmentally friendly advanced thermoplastic composites for the manufacture of large surface area structures (Ref. BRPR960228)

Contacts:

Gerry Boyce
Euro-Projects - Loughborough
Fax: +44 1332 255987
g.boyce@europrojects.co.uk

Frédéric Gouardères,
Research DG
Fax: +32 2 295 80 46
frederic.gouarderes@ec.europa.eu

       
   
 
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