The “green” light for technical applications

ABB has made the winning choice of a totally bio-based, biodegradable and compostable polymer specifically developed to assure a long service life, pleasing aesthetics and high-tech performance, and it is proving a success story

by Ada Agosti


All contenders had all the right credentials for victory. Technische Universiteit di Eindhoven entered the competition with Biobridge, the first footbridge made totally from bioplastic material, Biobrush with a toothbrush made totally of cellulose obtained from wood processing scrap, Adidas with its Futurecraft Biofabric footwear which makes use of Biosteel natural, high-performance compostable fabrics, while ICEE Container and BASF entered with their thermo-isolated folding crates moulded from a PBAT-PLA Ecovio blend. But it was the Italian company Maip, with its IamNature, in the form of a tailor-made formulation for the new plates for the Mylos civil engineering series of ABB, to win the prestigious 2017 Bioplastics Award.


Ethical and aesthetic

As in all success stories, the project was not accidental, Eligio Martini, managing director of Maip (located in Settimo Torinese, on the outskirts of Turin) explains: «Being prompted by the growing demand for products of sustainable origin, in 2016 ABB decided to improve on its Mylos Etok finishing plates, through the innovation of both the design and material. This led to research into a bioplastic material capable of combining the minimalist design which is typical of the brand, with performance levels comparable to those of the engineering polymers traditionally used for these kinds of applications, ABS or PC/ABS. The idea was to offer the plate in elegant colour and finish, in order for its to harmonize with the devices, combing all these aspects in a single functional and aesthetic element».

IamNature® soon proved to be the ideal candidate particularly from an environmental point of view. Eligio Martini goes on to explain: «IamNature is fundamentally based on a special PHBH, and consists of a compound to which natural fillers are added as well as additives of vegetable and/or organic nature. PHBH is obtained from the bacterial fermentation of sugar processing scrap. Its most interesting property is its high degree of biodegradability in different situations: and in fact unlike PLA, it also decomposes in anaerobic conditions and in contact with sea water. Thanks to these features the blend has also obtained the OK biobased Vinçotte certificate with the top four stars, which means that it has a renewable carbon content of between 80 and 100 percent».

The formulation specially developed by IamNature for a ball point pen range of the Swiss company Prodir, offers a pleasant tactile feel and easy processing. The material has been transformed using 36-cavity molds which, by means of three capillary channels, fill a pen body that is under 1 millimetre thick and with a length of over 10 centimetres

A highly technical profile

Martini continues: «The situation is more complicated from the point of view of performance, as ABB was looking for a material with the capacity of combining many properties, amongst which a considerable dimensional stability, as well as mechanical strength, thermal, light and UV ray resistance, colour stability, hardness, processing ease in multi-cavity moulds, industrial moulding cycles and the possibility of such a highly precise surface texture reproduction as to make it possible to avoid painting».

So that the development and formulation stage has required a close and ongoing collaboration between ABB and Maip, which has involved about two years of work, and the formulation of over 150 compounds, each being subjected to prior testing and inspection by the Turin-based compounder, therefore after an initial selection by SPPlast – the mould manufacturer, that played a crucial part in the co-engineering of the final material, pointing out any critical aspect in the industrial process along the way.

Eligio Martini underscores: «the addition of specific additives and fillers has allowed us to develop a grade with a isotropic shrinkage value similar that to an amorphous engineering plastic such as ABS, that is, of equal to 0.6 percent on a thickness of approximately 2 millimetres, and with a high degree of thermal resistance: it has in fact a Vicat softening temperature of 130 °C at a load of 1 kg. The material has also shown to have good electrical properties, passing the glow wire test with a temperature of 650 °C at 2 millimetres».

The ageing tests involving Xenotesting, that is often required by the electrical industry, as well as the more stringent SAE J 2527 tests, imposed by automotive standards, have demonstrated it to have excellent resistance to UV rays. «In fact it has been found to have a greater UV light resistance than ABS, and even better than that of ASA, which is a particularly popular polymer in the automotive sector thanks to its resistance in external applications».


Resistance and silky feel

Martini goes on: «A particularly demanding, but essential test for this kind of product, especially on the matt textures that ABB wanted, to promote the natural feel of Mytos Etik, that is the scratch resistance test. We chose the most critical colour, black, and used two evaluation methods: an objective parameter being the measurement of the colour and gloss variations, and a subjective parameter, taking the form of visual evaluation by several observers».

The brilliance and colour intensity were measured using a glossmeter and a spectrophotometer. While the simulations of resistance to “scratch and mar” and to abrasion, were undertaken using an Erichsen scratch tester, an alternating Crock meter and a rotary Taber abrasion tester, also gauging the comparative data in accordance with the various textures. Eligio Martini explains «The tests showed that the variations in colour and chiaroscuro effects, comes within the scratch resistance parameters indicated in the stringent tables set out by the FCA. The testing undertaken in order to assess resistance to different loads, also according to type and texture, has shown that the performance levels of our material are superior to those of ABS, and in the case of some textures it was found to be particularly sensitive to load. A total of 800 laboratory tests have been undertaken in order to assess the scratch and mar resistance. We have also developed a highly innovative test that simulates the action of a woman’s particularly sharp nail. The passing of the woman’s nail test, definitively convinced ABB».

Once the performance assessment was completed in collaboration with SPPlast, the IamNature grade chosen was optimized in order to allow mass production. «Thanks to the introduction of a special additive, we have been able to obtain a highly fluid compound, that has made it possible for us to reduce the cycle time and to perfectly reproduce the texture of the mould, whether it be matt or gloss. For these tests, ABB commissioned an interchangeable insert mould, so as to be able to determine both the scratch and touch resistance, in order to understand the kind of user experience provided according to the texture. The final choice was a matt finish and black and white colours».

The prestigious 2017 Bioplastics Award, which has gone to an Italian company for the first time, adds to the other important awards received by the ABB Mylos Etik finish plates, which have been on sale since last September: the Silver A Design Award in the category “Sustainable products, ecological projects and design” and the Good Design Award in the section “Product Design: Domestic Appliances”

Intelligent biodegradability

Bio-polymers are to a large extent defined by their composting and biodegradable properties, often being given more importance than their mechanical and aesthetic performance features. The market looks for, and uses them, almost exclusively for the packaging and agriculture sectors, therefore for disposable applications. While the Maip aims to give value to the origin and sustainable destination of IamNature for use in durable goods and technical items. Eligio Martini points out: «Ours is an intelligent biodegradable product, exactly in the same way as the wood used in interior design, and preserves its integrity in the user’s context and changes its life cycle if exposed to degradation. Given its properties, we can clearly affirm that it has been formulated for the production of durable goods, such as furnishing items, and parts for the automotive, electrical and toy sectors. Its colouring potential in a host of shades also opens the way to application possibilities in all those sectors that are not normally open to bioplastic materials».

Given the enormous potential of the material, we asked Eligio Martini to tell us about some of Maip’s most recent products. «Up to now, the ball point pens produced by the Swiss Prodir, an application for which IamNature provides mechanical resistance, pleasing aesthetics and a soft feel as well as excellent moulding performance. At the present time there are numerous other projects in an advanced stage of development, but, which we cannot reveal at the present time as they are covered by specific secrecy contracts». Martini ends by saying: “I know that it is not much for now, but this sustainable route has just started».

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