Environmental concerns and an overwhelming desire to be seen to be first with composite solutions were apparent at the JEC Europe 2012 show in March. European Plastics News visited the Paris exhibition and reports on emerging trends in the European composites industry.
Traditionally, automotive and construction have been the main industries driving innovation in composites in Europe. At this year's JEC Europe show, however, many composites suppliers were pursuing the material's enormous growth in wind turbines and the increasing popularity of biocomposites.
The importance of wind farms goes hand-in-hand with industry's increasing focus on sustainability, with many suppliers making it clear that being green is good for shareholders as well as the planet.
Previously, environmental pressures generated extra work and costs for users of composites by forcing them to remove substances which harm the environment but make production or application harder. But some suppliers have now launched products and developed processes which help the environment but can also solve technical problems.
3B was one of many companies showing new solutions for the wind market. In Paris it launched HiPer-tex W3030 high performance roving, a product specifically developed and engineered for polyester and vinylester resin systems and for resin infusion processes. 3B claims that HiPer-tex W3030 allows OEMs to manufacture longer and lighter blades for the larger multi-megawatt wind turbines located both onshore and offshore.
According to 3B, the new HiPer-tex W3030 roving offers up to 10% weight saving for the same design and length when compared to rotor blades manufactured with traditional E-glass. In addition, the turbine blade span can be lengthened by up to 6% while still maintaining the same weight, increasing energy output by up to 12%, says 3B.
Axson Technologies also show-ed an innovation it believes will appeal to the wind sector. The company exhibited what it claims is the only independent heating tooling regulated for prepregs outside the autoclave. This tooling, created in co-operation with Ensam from Lille, France, combines heating, vacuum and sealing.
The rigid section of the tooling, made in 2092 Axson epoxy-infused carbon or metal, provides the part with its geometry. A flexible heating counter-mould, made in Axson SVB20 Silicone, is projected in the exact shape of the part.
Heating the two parts of the tooling enables sandwich parts to be created. Axson says the technique allows large moulds to be used without the need to invest in large dimension autoclaves.
Axson claims it is the only company to have created a system which integrates the heating and the vacuum and sealing system. Patrick Blosse, executive VP of sales at Axson, said the clever aspect of the tool is that the flexible part is also heated.
"This can replace the autoclave and therefore saves a considerable amount of time and energy," he said.
Gurit is also keenly interested in the wind sector. In Paris it introduced Velinox, a resin system developed as a next-generation resin platform to enhance Gurit's current wind energy prepreg and SparPreg products. The company claims that Velinox is ideal for thick laminate sections, such as wind turbine blade spars and roots. The resin system does not react exothermically "in the same ways as a standard epoxy, enabling the cure profile to be modified to eliminate dwell periods, for controlled exotherm," the company says.
Gurit also launched Renuvo Wet Laminating (WL), a product specifically developed for wind turbine blade manufacturers' in-factory applications. The company says Renuvo will improve the maintenance and repair of today's wind turbine blades, as well as the blade manufacturing process.
Renuvo uses UV light from specially designed lamp equipment to achieve full cure in a few minutes. Renuvo WL has been formulated to behave like a traditional wet laminating system, and is suitable for infusion repairs and leading and trailing edge finishing processes.
AkzoNobel and DSM have also realised that the curing of composites offers enormous opportunities. In March they launched BluCure cobalt-free curing. The two companies claim that their new curing solutions offer the market more sustainable alternatives to conventional, cobalt-based systems. BluCure products are either cobalt-free accelerators or cobalt-free pre-accelerated resins and meet strict criteria.
"Environmental pressure on cobalt is gaining momentum," explained Alain Rynwalt from AkzoNobel. "In order to stay one step ahead of the legislators both companies have developed eco-friendly cobalt-free curing systems."
Cobalt octoate is the main component used in accelerators for curing UP/VE resin, either incorporated in the resin (pre-accelerated resin) or added separately to a non accelerated resin. According to AkzoNobel and DSM the Cobalt REACH Consortium has proposed a testing programme for cobalt octoate to ECHA and is awaiting feedback (expected by mid 2012).
AkzoNobel and DSM have said that it is likely that cobalt octoate will become CMR 1B classified. This means that the exposure of workers, consumers and the environment to this substance has to be minimised.
For the specific cobalt salts this limit may even become a factor lower i.e. 0.01% (calculated for the cobalt metal content). For manufacturers of composite parts, this means that the process for obtaining operational permits is, according to AkzoNobel and DSM, "significantly more complicated if they continue to work with these CMR 1B substances".
Biocomposites also came under the spotlight at JEC as the European Flax and Hemp Confederation launched the book 'Flax and Hemp: a natural solution for the composite industry'. The authors claim the book is the first scientific publication on flax and hemp reinforcements as it examines the mechanical properties of flax and hemp used in polymer reinforcement and assesses their major environmental advantages.
Although the benefits of natural materials were heavily promoted at JEC Europe 2012, established materials for use in composites, particularly carbon, were also on show.
Professor Brad Dunstan, CEO of the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing in Australia, was in Paris to promote Australia's interest in the European composites industry. He was promoting the carbon competencies currently being built up in Victoria, Australia, in particular what he claims is the world's first open access industrial-scale research plant for carbon fibre.
According to Dunstan, the Australian Carbon Fibre Research Facility consists of a pilot plant which will be capable of producing up to 20 tonnes of advanced carbon fibre per annum for research purposes. It has the capacity to be used for a broad range of R&D projects including research into the chemical, mechanical and nanoscale characteristics of carbon fibre.
Deakin University is a key partner in the carbon consortium and is using a Favimat (AI) Robot2, the only one in Australia and one of 15 in the world.
Those resources will be complemented by the Australian Future Fibres Research & Innovation Centre (AFFRIC), due for completion in 2012. AFFRIC aims to advance the quality and use of carbon fibre and will welcome large scale projects.
As pressure increases on the world's natural resources such efforts could result in more effective composite solutions. Carbon fibre may be the future material but process issues such as environmentally friendly curing will, as JEC Europe 2012 demonstrated, continue to be important.