High-Temp Plastics Are Real Hot Items

April 30, 2002
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LITTLE FALLS, N.J. — While some segments of the plastics industry have been flat for more than a year, the market for high-temperature plastics is said to be sizzling.

It’s the fastest-growing segment of the plastics industry, rising at a rate of 9.5 percent worldwide or at double the global gross domestic product figure.

That news comes from a study released earlier this month by Kline & Co., an international business consulting firm based in New Jersey.

High-temperature plastics are polymers that can withstand heat of up to 200 degrees C (above 350 degrees F) without distortion. Worldwide sales of the products have grown from $800 million in 1984 to an estimated $4.4 billion in 2000. By 2005, global sales are expected to reach $6.8 billion.

The electronic and electrical industries are the biggest users of these specialized plastics. Together the two used about 47 percent of all the high-temp plastics produced in 2000.

“Such trends as electronic component integration, surface mount technology, and growth in electronics for Internet and broadband applications are driving demand in the electronics sector,” read the Kline & Co. report summary.

The automotive market is also driving up the demand, as high-temp plastics are being used to improve fuel efficiency and to lower emissions.

Kline reports that it has become axiomatic in the plastics industry to regard the development of new resins as too capital-intensive, expensive and fraught with risk with regard to ultimate market acceptance.

“This may hold true for the higher-volume commodity resins,” the report indicates, “but it is clearly not true of the specialty, higher-performance types of thermoplastics and thermosets. Nowhere is the search for new materials more intense nor the possible rewards for such efforts greater than in the field of high-temperature polymers.”

About a dozen polymers fill the lineup of high-temp plastics.

Liquid crystal polymers (LCPs) and polyetherimides (PEIs) are among the most popular. LCPs are relatively low-priced and are used extensively in the electronics and electrical markets.

Manufacturers of many micro and surface-mount electrical connections use LCP insulators or other high temperature plastics. Such insulators permit designers to allow for processing temperatures up to 230 degrees C (nearly 450 degrees F) often required in infrared board processing. LCPs and PEIs also can withstand short-term heat excursions up to 500 degrees F.

In part, this is why plastics also are widely used in jet engines.

Though they cannot withstand prolonged exposure to the engines’ high internal temperatures, they have properties that make them more versatile than metals in adjoining locations.

They not only are lighter than many materials of comparable strength but also, unlike many metal components, they do not rust. And thanks to their molecular stability even at sustained temperatures on the order of 200 C, plastics do not fatigue and break as easily as some metals.

PEIs are often blended with polycarbonate and used in consumer and medical applications.

But a new strand may replace those shortly. Syndiotactic polystrene is a high-temp plastic developed in the 1990s that has just started to gain some attention in the past few years.

According to the Kline & Co. study, sales for high-temp plastics are growing the fastest in countries outside of the U.S., Japan and Europe. The rate of growth in those nations is 12.5 percent annually. Yearly sales have grown by 7 percent in Japan, and at a rate slightly higher in both the U.S. and Europe.

For more on the study, contact Kline & Co. at (973) 435-3431, or check the report Web site:

http://www.klinegroup.com/studies/plastics/brochures/y384a/brochure.pdf.

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