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Brite-Euram project awarded top composites prize

An innovative composite material developed in an EU-funded project has been awarded one of the top prizes in the composites world for an environmentally friendly thermoplastic material which can be used for the production of large surfaces. The Twintex material, developed in ...

An innovative composite material developed in an EU-funded project has been awarded one of the top prizes in the composites world for an environmentally friendly thermoplastic material which can be used for the production of large surfaces. The Twintex material, developed in the Environcomp project with support from the Brite-Euram programme, is exceptional because, unlike similar composite materials, it can be moulded in large sections and it avoids the emission of harmful styrene vapours that cause serious damage to human lungs and nervous systems if inhaled. UK boat manufacturer Halmatic accepted the JEC composite award for transport innovation on behalf of the project during a ceremony at the JEC Composites Show 2000, the world's leading event for composites and new materials. Halmatic is one of several partners who collaborated over three years on the Environcomp project, successfully demonstrating the use of the Twintex material in the manufacture of boats. JEC general manager Frédérique Mutel said: 'It is the first time the composite industry has seen a boat made of reinforced thermal plastics. Halmatic demonstrated a very good performance of a very good product. 'There were three criteria for judging the awards. Firstly, the technological aspect - it must be an innovation, something new. Secondly, it must have a demonstrable commercial application. Finally, the quality of the partnership is important. The products selected should also be environmentally friendly. 'Halmatic was judged to have done excellently in each category. The project is a very good example of a European partnership - it involved a German research institute, a French provider of materials, the use of which was demonstrated on the products of British and Danish companies.' The JEC Composites show is designed to bring together R&D managers and buyers from the final markets with the producers of composite materials. Over 17,000 participants from 85 countries had the opportunity to observe the Twintex material, offering the Envirocomp partnership substantial marketing opportunities for the future. 'We have received a lot of interest since then, both from within Europe and from further afield,' said Gerry Boyce, of Euro-Projects, the UK composite materials design and development specialists who led the Envirocomp project. 'We want to keep it within Europe at the moment, to give European industry a competitive advantage. The research could not have been done without public funding, and we want with this technology to give something back. We will show that this type of collaboration is going to deliver a process that people can use.' The concept behind the award winning project was to develop an environmentally friendly alternative to fibre-reinforced plastics (FRP), the material of choice for constructing large scale structures used for all types of transport, and particularly boats. FRPs are popular because they are lightweight yet hard-wearing, making them ideal for use in the construction of various modes of transport. In Western Europe, over 300,000 tonnes of FRP products are moulded each year in open moulds. The durability of FRPs is limited by the fact that they can only be moulded in smaller sections, and the joins where the parts are moulded together are therefore weaker. A more serious problem is that ninety per cent of these products are manufactured using liquid polyester resins that emit styrene vapour into the workplace. Styrene vapour attacks the lungs and the nervous system with effects such as depression, concentration problems, muscle weakness, tiredness and nausea. Research has also suggested it may be carcinogenic. Increasingly stringent health and safety regulations have already reduced acceptable styrene levels in the workplace. In order to meet these targets and overcome the environmental problems associated with styrene, Euro-Projects together with their European partners, put together a proposal for the Envirocomp project, successfully attracting Community funding in 1996. 'The project addressed a European problem - how to meet the legislative requirements - and a technological problem, which made a good case for a research project,' said Frédéric Gouardères, a scientific officer in the European Commission's Research DG. 'Their approach was innovative, the partnership was complementary with plenty of good expertise, and there were environmental benefits - the product can also be recycled.' The project is based on the use of Twintex, a co-mingled strand of glass and polypropylene fibre developed by French glass specialist Vetrotex. The fibres are woven into a fabric which can be moulded around any shaped object. The material is then heated to 190 degrees Celsius when the polypropylene melts. Several of the project partners are potential end users of Twintex, and during the project they have has successfully demonstrated the low-pressure moulding of thermoplastic composite structures, including boat hulls, wind turbine blades, flagpoles and refrigerated trailer doors. One of the researchers involved in the project, Philippe Papin, has worked on both the development of the material and the demonstration of product. He says: 'Twintex is an excellent material - the process of making it is quick and can be adapted to suit most shapes. Once constructed it is difficult to break, but it's also easy to repair. 'There are also environmental advantages - it is possible to recycle offcuts and mouldings, and there are none of the bad chemicals associated with styrene involved.' He first encountered Twintex whilst as a PhD student at the university of Poitiers working with Vetrotex. He was awarded a Marie Curie fellowship to continue working on the material with Halmatic in the UK, for whom he is now a full time employee. 'It has been a very good experience for me living in England, and also working with the material that I wanted to. It has been good for my language skills, and I think it must have been a success, because Halmatic have kept me on to work with them on other projects.'