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What are Engineering Plastics...
Engineering Thermoplastics are a subset of plastic materials that are used in applications generally requiring higher performance in the areas of heat resistance, chemical resistance, impact, fire retardancy or mechanical strength. Engineering Thermoplastics are so named as they have properties in one or more areas that exhibit higher performance than commodity materials and are suitable for applications that require engineering to design parts that perform in their intended use.
In the plastics marketplace today, it is generally accepted that engineering plastics are materials that have heat resistance above 100 deg C and good flame retardant properties. While commodity plastics tend to be very high volume production, and priced on a supply/demand basis as the name suggests, the delineation between engineering plastics and commodity plastics over time has come to mean differences in heat resistance and flame retardancy and in general an overall higher level of performance for engineering plastics. Additionally we recognize a category called Performance Plastics (link to PP section) which are the highest heat materials made today, and they are generally considered a subset of engineering plastics.
Engineering Thermoplastics, as with Commodity Thermoplastics, are in a separate category from Thermosets. Both types of thermoplastics are created by the manufacturer as long polymer chains ready to be molded — the polymerization process, which creates chains of repeating monomer units, is accomplished in a chemical plant. These materials are basically melted and formed into the desired shape by a variety of processes (link processes to other sections or sub articles here) and once processed, can be re-melted and formed again, or ground and worked back into the production process to reduce the use of virgin material.
Thermosets, on the other hand, are not created by the manufacturer as ready to use long polymer chains. Thermosets are polymerized during the conversion process to create a part. Under heat and pressure, the resin and catalyst react in the mold to create long, cross linked polymer chains, with permanent chemical bonds. They cannot be re-melted and therefore the scrap is not able to be worked back into the supply stream (except perhaps as a filler in some cases). This basic difference — thermoplastics consisting of long polymer chains that can be made to flow with heat and thermosets consisting of cross linked long polymer chains that cannot be reprocessed with heat or pressure — gives differing properties to the finished product with unique advantages and challenges.
To further illustrate this difference, consider water, which can be frozen into a solid — ice — and remelted to water and back and forth again, similar to a thermoplastic. Alternatively a cake is mixed up as a batter and baked (heated), creating a different chemistry in the final product that cannot be taken back to cake batter regardless of the amount of heat applied.
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Engineering Plastics Links
Following, in this column, are helpful links and resources relating to Engineering Plastics. If you have any suggestions to add here, please email the