New Advances in Polymer Production

Manufacturers of just about everything complex or mechanical in the world use polymers of some type. Automakers such as, General Motors and Toyota and airplane manufacturers such as, Airbus and Boeing require durable, lightweight, and heat-resistant components that can stand up to high velocity and wind resistance. The tolerances on these polymers are extremely low, especially for airplanes. Current engineering practices for producing specialized parts requires vast amounts of energy and time and can be cost-prohibitive.

However, researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a revolutionary new polymer-curing process, which with enough precision, could significantly decrease the cost and energy associated with the manufacture of specialized parts. Currently , curing just one section of a Boeing’s larger 787 Dreamliner aircraft uses over 96,000 kilowatt-hours of energy and emits over 80 tons of carbon dioxide.

“The airliner manufacturers use a curing oven that is about 60 feet in diameter and about 40 feet long — it is an incredibly massive structure filled with heating elements, fans, cooling pipes and all sorts of other complex machinery,” Scott White, a member of the team at the University of Illinois states. “The temperature is raised to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of very precise steps over a roughly 24-hour cycle. It is an incredibly energy-intensive process.”

The research group at the University of Illinois believes their new polymer curing process could reduce the energy requirement for polymer production to as few at 9.6 milliwatt hours, 10 orders of magnitude fewer (equivalent to lighting a 25-watt incandescent lightbulb for 2 seconds ). With these advancements, polymer manufacturing could drastically reduce in cost and open entirely new applications for the technology.

The New Curing Process

This new polymer curing method is called “frontal polymerization,” as the reaction quickly moves from the monomer resin (or monomer fiber-mixture) along a line, like a tropical storm . It uses the energy in the resin’s chemical bonds to fuel the process instead of external heat, which wastes a lot of power. The team at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois has created a technique that releases energy at the optimal rate for molding the polymer to the correct shape.

“By touching what is essentially a soldering iron to one corner of the polymer surface, we can start a cascading chemical-reaction wave that propagates throughout the material,” says White. “Once triggered, the reaction uses enthalpy, or the internal energy of the polymerization reaction, to push the reaction forward and cure the material, rather than an external energy source. This development marks what could be the first major advancement to the high-performance polymer and composite manufacturing industry in almost half a century.”

In their controlled laboratory environment, the Beckman Institute team has produced safe, high-quality polymers. The finalized samples have properties similar to those of traditionally-produced polymers and can be used for high-pressure applications, including commercial flight. Within several years, they believe their process can accommodate large-scale production with existing fabrication techniques like 3D printing, resin infusion, imprinting, and molding.

Applications for Current Manufacturers

While the technology is still years, possibly even decades away from making it to mass-market, it’s essential to stay up to date on these developments. With investments from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and a growing necessity to reduce carbon footprint, these new manufacturing processes will be necessary as soon as possible. With the possibility for less expensive, lightweight, and faster-produced polymers, investment in this technology will only grow.

Learn more about Avomeen’s polymer testing capabilities on our Polymers, Plastics & Rubber Industry Page.