Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.
COVID-19 revealed Australia’s vulnerability to trade disruptions in the global marketplace and galvanised us all into reassessing national self-reliance. As an island nation at the end of long global trade routes, our manufacturing sector is heavily reliant on just in time supply chains, and has little tolerance for loss and disruption. The last year has demonstrated that the Australian composite sector needs a degree of domestic-based manufacturing capability for critical components of our supply chains to ensure the lights in our businesses can remain turned on. For chemical inputs – the lifeblood of Australian manufacturing – #Allnex, is not only the largest, but also the only local producer of composite resins, such as unsaturated polyester and vinyl ester resins, gelcoats and flowcoats. The team that provides Allnex’s end-to-end research and product development service has worked intensely during this difficult environment to develop a number of next generation products.
Coming out of the pandemic earlier this year, Allnex launched its next generation of pool gelcoats, #Aquaguard® X. It was over 20 years ago that the original Aquaguard® range of pool gelcoats was developed for the local and global composite pool markets. David Stevenson, Product Line Manager, who has followed Allnex (in its previous entities) around the country for 29 years this month, was involved with the initial development of Aquaguard®. “The Aquaguard® range has served industry well. It has high durability, outstanding UV protection and weathering and chemical resistance properties. We were the first in the world to introduce aesthetic finishes such as stunning jewel highlights and stone/granite-like finishes, all of which are enabled by our polymer chemistry.”
According to CSIRO, Australia’s climate has warmed over the past century, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events. Scientists at NASA analysing 30 years of satellite data, also found that the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching Earth’s surface has increased markedly over the last three decades. The cumulative effect of what is known as ‘climate change’ is a challenge for all surface technologies on manufactured products.
“We’re the only company in Australia that can control and change what’s in the polymer chain for a given end result, such as improving existing or developing new products to withstand the harsher outdoor conditions, ” says David who admits to loving the challenge of purposeful chemistry.
Having trained as a chemist, David commenced his career in the technical lab of A.C. Hatrick Chemicals Pty Ltd in Homebush, NSW. He maintains that Australia is a good place to develop polymer technology. “Our products have to be robust and durable for a multitude of applications such as swimming pools, boats, truck bodies, tanks, roof sheeting, pipelines and many more in all conditions from Antarctica to the middle of the desert. The same product could be used on the same day in a workshop at -3 Celsius in Melbourne and 45 Celsius in Darwin. We also have the home ground advantage in that shipping times tend to erode shelf life of imported products.”
Producing a high performing, cost effective gel coat is not easy. A typical gelcoat formula can be made up of up to 30 different elements including resins, fillers, pigments and additives, all of which have to perform symbiotically. A gelcoat has to be manufactured to be applied using a variety of application methods in a range of temperature conditions. Mechanical properties, porosity, viscosity and physical bonding properties all play a part. But changing one chemical input to improve a particular property can adversely affect another. Balancing the chemistry and managing all the performance expectations requires considerable R&D.
Also on the 2021 agenda for Allnex is the release of a new antistatic gelcoat, the name for which is yet to be confirmed. Static electricity is a common problem that affects manufacturers around the world.
“Our new antistatic gelcoat will make statically-charged workplaces – that most likely have styrene and acetone vapour present – much safer. It eliminates the need for earthing and antistatic straps.”
“Static electricity, which is a function of mechanical motion and a dry warm environment, can accumulate during fabrication. Fibreglass rovings in particular, have a tendency to become positive. The result can be unwanted accumulation of dust – by virtue of dust being attracted to a statically charged surface – which can ruin a surface finish. Demoulding can often become hazardous.” advises Dan Naiker, Applications Manager at Allnex.
Dan, who has spent over 40 years in the composite sector, also admits to loving the challenge of purposeful chemistry to solve problems and to streamline manufacturing. “Our new antistatic gelcoat will make statically-charged workplaces – that most likely have styrene and acetone vapour present – much safer. It eliminates the need for earthing and antistatic straps.”
Composites products in the electrically charged environments such as fuel tanks and pipes in the construction sector will also benefit from antistatic properties of the new gelcoat.” Both Dan and David are committed to the chemistry of the materials used for making thermosets – the properties, composition, behaviour and the changes that can be enabled to make step change composite products.