Polymers and composites made incredibly cheaply
Researchers have found a way to create industrially important thermoset polymer and fibre-reinforced polymer composite products at considerably lower expense than has been possible before. The method allowed 3-D printing of a spiral and a molecular model of the monomer. The team also fabricated a carbon-fibre-reinforced composite panel (bottom) similar to those used for cars, boats, and planes. The approach could create products such as shaped composite panels for airplane fuselages using 10 orders of magnitude lower energy than current industrial manufacturing techniques. And the resulting polymers and composites have comparable propertiesstrength, thermal stability, bending resistance, and chemical resistanceto those made conventionally. The method could be useful for making a wide variety of polymer and composite products in a range of creative formsincluding strong, lightweight shaped materials for the bodies of cars, boats, and planes, some of the largest-volume applications of fibre-reinforced polymer composites. Manufacturing high-performance thermoset components currently requires autoclaves that cure preshaped monomer resins by heating them under pressure. The size of the autoclave scales with the size of the component, so some are very large indeed. The process is slow and uses an enormous amount of energy, especially for large components. Aerospace engineers Scott R. White and Philippe H. Geubelle, chemist Jeffrey S. Moore, materials scientist Nancy R. Sottos, and co-workers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, developed the new cost-effective method (Nature 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0054-x). The researchers estimate that conventional curing of a small section of a Boeing 787 fibre-reinforced composite fuselage requires 96,000 kilowatt hours of electrical energy, the amount used by about nine residential homes in one year. They believe their new curing method would lower the energy requirement for the same part to 9.6 milliwatt hours, enough to light a 25-watt incandescent bulb for about 2 seconds. The teams first step is to preshape a solution or gel of the monomer dicyclopentadiene (DCPD) or a DCPD-fibre mixture. They then use a heat source to initiate polymerisation of the preshaped material. Once initiated, the monomer has sufficient internal energy to polymerize itself into a thermoset product, with no autoclaves or power plants needed. The process is called frontal polymerisation because the reaction moves quickly through the monomer resin or monomer-fibre mixture along a line, or front, like a rapidly moving weather system or military formation. Frontal polymerisation of DCPD produces high-performance, crosslinked thermoset polydicyclopentadiene (pDCPD) polymers or polymer composites. The specific reaction the Illinois researchers use is ruthenium-catalysed frontal ring-opening metathesis polymerisation, or FROMP. Other scientists developed FROMP earlier, but its use has been severely limited by its short pot life. For example, an unheated DCPD monomer resin or fibre mixture cures substantially in 30 minutes. In most cases, thats too fast to preshape the starting material properly before initiating polymerisation. The groups key contribution is the recent discovery of alkyl phosphite inhibitors that extend the processing window for DCPD monomers from 30 minutes to 30 hours. The inhibitors make it possible to use FROMP to create a range of pDCPD polymer and composite structures. The researchers used a 3-D printer to create spiral forms and a DCPD molecular model. They fabricated polymer shapes sporting embossed lettering. And they made fibre-reinforced composite panels. The products have properties similar to those of comparable polymers and composites produced industrially and are suitable for high-performance applications. Because initiating heat is the sole energy required, the method uses far less energy than conventional curing. It is also faster and doesnt require expensive autoclaves. The authors have shown how to extend FROMP pot life to useful ranges, and, most importantly, how to make useful materials faster and cheaper than by traditional methods, says frontal polymerisation pioneer John A. Pojman Sr. of Louisiana State University. White says that he and his co-workers hope to use the technique to develop entirely new methods to manufacture complex structures. We have filed several U.S. patents related to this research, but it is not yet being commercialised.
Chemical & Engineering News, 11 May 2018 ; http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news