Green plastic powered by FOM, Michelin, SKF and DPI

28 November 2011

Partnership begins research project on polymer reinforcement 

The FOM Foundation is forming a partnership with Michelin, SKF and Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI) to gain a better fundamental understanding of how polymers are reinforced by adding fillers. Today the partners signed the contract for this new FOM Industrial Partnership Programme that has a budget of 1.6 million euros. Nearly all ‘plastic' objects around us consist of polymers that have been reinforced with fillers to improve their physical properties. The researchers have set their sights high: they want to be the first to make a quantitative connection between the macroscale properties and performances of these reinforced materials and their structure at the molecular level. The partners will jointly deploy a wide range of advanced techniques to study the network structures at the mesoscale.

Filled polymers
The 'filled' polymers are used for many applications, for example, in tyres (Michelin), sealing solutions in bearing applications (SKF) and a range of other types of plastic or rubber (DPI). Yet at a fundamental level, we still do not know how fillers reinforce the polymer network. This is the key question to be answered during the next four years by the FOM researchers at the University of Amsterdam, the FOM institute AMOLF, Eindhoven University of Technology and the University of Glasgow, together with researchers from the participating companies.

Unique training
The research programme will give five PhD students and one postdoc researcher the opportunity to work on a fundamental problem of major industrial relevance. These young researchers will work in university laboratories but also have access to the research facilities at SKF and Michelin. The unique combination of many different state-of-the-art experimental techniques makes this programme particularly interesting for young talented researchers.

Programme leader Professor Daniel Bonn from the University of Amsterdam is enthusiastic about the new Industrial Partnership Programme that has now been given the green light: "Although many researchers are or have been working on this problem, we have yet to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the microstructure and the mechanical properties. It's great that we can now use a large number of highly advanced image-processing techniques to try to establish a quantitative link between the micro- and macroscales for the first time. Achieving that really would be a significant breakthrough. Fortunately FOM, DPI and the industrial partners agree with us!"

Green tyres, seals and energy saving
Using various types of fillers, researchers are trying to change the mechanical properties (and, to a certain extent, the control) of a wide range of polymer systems. Michelin and SKF both have an interest in these systems. In the tyre industry, carbon black is still the most used filler substance. Nowadays the trend is towards 'green tyres' and carbon black is gradually being replaced by silica as a filler. Such a polymer-silica system is easier to control and characterise than the old polymer-carbon black system. This has opened up possibilities for research into the various physical processes that underlie the reinforcement of polymers by fillers. The most important challenge is linking the microstructure of the filled polymer to the macroscopic (non-linear) elasticity of the materials. Understanding such a relationship would help SKF, for example, to produce even more energy-efficient bearings by controlling the properties of sealing materials. These are typically silica-filled elastomers, which can be responsible for at least half of the friction produced within a bearing.