Importance of thermoplastic elastomers for the automotive industry

By: Mr. Anil Gupta, Managing Director, KAPL (Krishna Antioxidant Pvt. Ltd.)

Thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are a class of copolymers, contemporary construction polymers, which are physically cross-linked materials composed of thermoplastics and elastomers. Essentially a mixture of plastic and rubber, with thermoplastic and elastomeric properties. This copolymer has an elasticity similar to that of rubber and plastics and is therefore used where standard plastics or conventional elastomers fail to impart the necessary physical properties to the final product.

The viscosity of thermoplastic elastomers is significantly lower than the viscosities of traditional rubber elastomers, which provides many processing advantages for thermoplastic elastomers over natural rubbers. Today they are used in many applications, such as adhesives, footwear, medical devices, automotive parts, household items, etc., where they provide elasticity benefits over a wide temperature range.

Thermoplastic elastomers are one of the most versatile polymers on the market today. TPE is called “third generation rubber” because of the high elasticity of thermoset vulcanized rubber at room temperature and the good processability of thermoplastic at high temperature. TPE is composed of two dissimilar phases: a soft phase which represents the rubber segment and provides elastic properties, and a hard phase which represents the thermoplastic segment and provides both ease of processing and full recyclability of the material. Thermoplastic elastomers can be molded into desired shapes using conventional processing technologies.

Given their versatility, nearly 40% of thermoplastic elastomers are used in vehicle manufacturing globally as they have many variants with diverse attributes, their applications are widespread, ranging from coatings to bumpers to padding and sealing components. Today, about a third of the approximately 30,000 car parts are made of plastic.

Some of the main TPEs used in the sector are:

PP (Polypropylene) – It is chemically resistant and offers improved strength, stiffness and higher temperature capabilities. It is mainly used in the manufacture of chemical tanks, automobile bumpers and battery boxes.

PUR (Polyurethane) – Is one of the most versatile polymers that has demonstrated its applications over a wide range. They appear soft and flexible or stiff and hard in the automotive industry. The material is abrasion resistant with superior hardness. Rigid PU foam provides better load-bearing properties, superior adhesion to the substrate and excellent insulation.

PA (Polyamide) – This material absorbs water and is primarily used for applications under the engine hood of the vehicle.

PE (Polyethylene) – Used for car bodies and electrical insulation due to its high resistance to impact and moisture.

ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer) – This is a waterproof material that is used to improve toughness, warmth and impact resistance in vehicle interiors.

The automotive industry faces multiple challenges in manufacturing, including: reducing noise, reducing fuel consumption and emissions, increasing product and user safety, improving performance, reducing weight and improving comfort.

These and other TPEs have grown in popularity as they find various applications in the automotive sector due to a wide range of physical attributes that benefit the sector:

1. Their ability to stretch and return to their original state ensures physical durability, extending the life of the product. KAPL has developed a range of antioxidants specifically designed to maximize product shelf life by developing properties such as heat, color and processing stability when the product is subjected to extreme conditions and high temperatures.

2. Because TPEs are very light, they require very little energy to manufacture, which means lower fuel consumption, lower CO2 emissions and lightweight automobiles.

3. They can be easily colored with any dye. They offer enormous freedom in the design of interior and exterior parts as they are durable, resistant to abrasion and vibration.

4. They provide maximum passenger safety in the event of a collision as they absorb shock and can be molded into the upholstery, improving vehicle comfort and handling.

5. TPE products also have the potential to be recycled since they possess the attributes of plastics that can be molded and reused.

6. TPE is durable and can withstand harsh conditions. This makes them ideal for many car and truck internal mechanisms, such as car locks.

7. They ensure a better strength-to-weight ratio of the vehicle, which results in greater fuel economy (reduced fuel costs), which in turn results in reduced emissions (reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).

These factors not only influence the productivity and economic benefits of using thermoplastics, but also reduce environmental impact and help make driving safe and comfortable. The rise of electric vehicles has increased the demand for new components, for example, the demand for long-term heat-resistant plastics has increased.

The use of TPE has grown exponentially and is expected to expand further due to its huge applications in daily life. Encapsulation and molding are the most widely used applications of TPE materials. About 85% of plastic products in the modern world are made of TPE materials. The competitive price-performance ratio compared to other natural rubber products is one of the main reasons. The thermal characteristics of thermoplastics are important in the design and selection of automotive parts and components.

Warning: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not represent those of Indian Express Group or its employees.

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