Additives & Composites

Additives and composites bring even more diversity on a market already full of polymers. Yet these remain simple concepts accessible to anyone.

Polymers: Additives and composites

Have you heard of conductive filament ? Copper-filled plastic ? How can PLA be sometimes transparent and sometimes of a deep dark blue ? All of these filaments contain additives, that’s what makes them special.
Let’s dive into two related concepts: additives and composites.

What is an additive ?

An additive, or filler, can be defined as a secondary material or substance (usually in the form of solid particles) which is added to the primary plastic to modify its properties. A variety of solid fillers can be added to the formulation of a polymer: other polymers, metals, ceramics, glasses, wood, and more. This can be a very interesting development strategy, insofar as it can turn common or inexpensive plastics into easy-to-process engineering composites.

What is a composite ?

There are several families of materials: metals, ceramics, glasses, woods, plastics. A composite is a material made of at least two distinct materials, usually from different families. Mix carbon fibers and epoxy resin to craft a leg prosthesis, and you’ll get a composite.
In the case of solid additives and polymers, the plastic matter is called the matrix; it contains the filler, additive, or reinforcement. Solid additives must be of rather small dimensions, since they must be distributed in the polymer. This is especially true when working with thin shapes: pellets, filament.

http://www.essentialchemicalindustry.org/materials-and-applications/composites.html

The most common shapes of additives are:

  • Fibers: they usually increase the strength of the material in their direction. In a filament, fibers usually end up aligned in the direction of the filament.
  • Powders: metals, ceramics, and pigments are usually added in the form of fine powders. This allows for a very homogeneous distribution.
  • Sheets: sandwich composites are made of different layers. The idea is to have surfaces resistant to impact and efforts, held together in a certain shape by a very light core for flexibility.

https://www.totalmateria.com/page.aspx?ID=CheckArticle&site=kts&NM=484

Polycarbonate pellets and Teflon fine powder

Almost all polymers contain additives, but not necessarily solid reinforcements. Stabilizers, which make plastics more easily processable and heat-resistant, are a good example of chemical additives. Some stabilizers increase the polymer’s resistance to UV, or to flames, or other exterior factors. In that case, the term “composite” is not being used. But at the end of the day, all additives have the same purpose: enhancing the properties of a given material.

Applications

Additives, or fillers, bring even more variety and customization options on a market already full of polymers. They give manufacturers the power to face new challenges and make very specific parts for all kinds of applications. Mechanical strength can be enhanced thanks to glass or carbon fiber. Additives can also be used for very simple aesthetics purposes, like giving a flashy color to a filament using colorants, or making it look shiny by adding metal particles.

Customizing polymer filaments with additives naturally brings 3D printing up another notch. It pushes its limits back by making complex parts intrinsically special, allowing for an even wider range of applications. For a materials expert, the best solution to a physical problem is : the right material filled with the right additives, given the right shape with the right process. In most cases, additives improve the properties of a material without making it much harder to process.

Here are a few examples of fillers which can be added to a plastic to give it new exciting properties:

FillerAssociated property
PigmentsNew color
Aluminium powderShininess
Carbon fibersMechanical strength
Glass fibersMechanical strength
Carbon blackElectical conductivity
Wood particlesWarm and rough texture

In a nutshell, do not feel limited by the number of materials on the market: assemble different materials and make up your own for unexpected applications !
For more information about how additives affect polymer processing, click here.