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BÜFA Thermoplastic Composites GmbH & Co. KG

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What are the differences between thermoplastics, thermosets & elastomers?

We encounter plastics every day in our daily lives. Many everyday objects are made of plastic, even those you would not expect. Materials such as aluminium or metal often reach their limits, because they cause a higher weight and prevent flexible use. Flexibility is also becoming increasingly important in industrial processing, as is a lower final weight.

Plastics consist mainly of macromolecules and are processed into moulded parts, semi-finished products, films or fibres. They are characterised by technical properties such as hardness, breaking strength, mouldability, elasticity, temperature, heat and chemical resistance. The expression of these characteristics can be varied by the choice of macromolecules, the manufacturing process and by mixing in so-called additives.

Plastics are classified into three types with regard to their physical properties: Thermoplastics, Thermosets as well as Elastomers.  The choice of the appropriate polymer depends on factors such as load, temperature, cost and chemical properties.


Polymer Types

Thermoplastics Mouldable in the thermoplastic range

Thermoplastics (thermo= warm, hot and “plast” from the ancient Greek plássein = to form, shape), also called plastomers, are plastics that can be deformed by heating in a certain temperature range (thermoplastic). This process is reversible and can be repeated as often as desired by cooling and reheating, as long as no thermal decomposition of the material occurs. 

They can be easily injection moulded, cast, extruded and thermoformed, which reduces processing costs and speeds up production. Examples of thermoplastics are polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are used in a wide range of applications, e.g. in leisure and sports equipment, but also in the automotive and aerospace industries.  Thermoplastics have good chemical resistance and are usually resistant to acids, alkalis, solvents and oils. This makes them ideal for applications that are exposed to high chemical stresses. Thermoplastics also have good electrical and thermal insulation properties, which makes them particularly suitable for the manufacture of electrical and electronic devices and cables. Another property that thermoplastics have over other plastics is their weldability: thermoplastics can be welded. 

Unlike thermoset plastics, which cannot be processed repeatedly due to their cross-linked polymer chains, thermoplastics can simply be melted down during recycling.

This means that old products can be processed into new products without changing the material properties. In addition, impurities can be easily removed when recycling thermoplastics.

Overall, the recycling of thermoplastics therefore offers both ecological and economic advantages. It contributes to waste avoidance and resource conservation and helps to reduce the need for fossil raw materials and CO2 emissions.


Thermosetting plastics: Durability and resistance

Thermosets are also called duromers or thermosets and are plastics that retain their state and shape after curing. This is because their polymers are spatially cross-linked and can therefore no longer be dissolved. Thermosets are used in electrical installations, among other things, because of their mechanical and chemical resistance even at elevated temperatures. The thermosets that have been processed the longest and most frequently are phenoplastics. Polyester resins, polyurethane resins for lacquers and surface coatings as well as practically all synthetic resins such as epoxy resins also belong to the thermosets.


The differences at a glance:

Thermoplastics

  • No chemical curing reaction
  • high viscosity
  • difficult fiber impregnation
  • conditionally solvent resistant
  • short process times
  • Materials are weldable
  • Unlimited shelf life (storage)
  • high energy absorption in case of damage
  • good recycling properties – chemical curing reaction

Thermosets

  • chemical curing reaction
  • low viscosity
  • good fibre impregnation
  • high solvent resistance
  • medium to long process times
  • Limited shelf life (storage)
  • high fixture effort
  • Brittle fracture behavior in case of damage
  • Limited recycling

Elastomers: properties and areas of application 

Elastomers are polymer materials that have a high degree of stretchability and elasticity. They can return to their original shape after being deformed. Their glass transition point is below room temperature. This property makes them ideal for applications such as seals, springs, rubber bands and tyres.

Elastomers are produced in different types, such as rubber, polyurethanes and silicones. Rubber is a natural elastomer derived from rubber tree sap. Polyurethanes and silicones are synthetic elastomers used in a variety of applications, including medical, automotive and construction.

Elastomers also have good resistance to weathering and ageing. They are resistant to water, oils, acids and alkalis. They can also work in a wide range of temperatures, from very low to very high temperatures.

Some disadvantages of elastomers are that they are inferior to other materials in terms of strength and hardness, and they are difficult to machine and recycle.


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