Towards polymer perfection New, lighter and more resistant plastic materials that can be moulded in complex shapes promise to brighten the future of the plastics industry in Europe. Industrial Technologies © Thinkstock Polymer composites have helped improve innovation in industry and create better products by enhancing strength, elasticity and other useful properties. In particular, a family of thermoplastic composites known as self-reinforced polymer (SRP) composites hold much promise in creating lighter, firmer, recyclable materials. The EU-funded project 'Resource-efficient self-reinforced plastic materials and processing' (ESPRIT) aimed to produced better versions of these composites from existing polymers such as polyamides and polyesters. It investigated new ways to facilitate the moulding of these materials for more flexibility using energy-efficient microwave and induction heating techniques. This is expected to provide significantly improved properties over current plastic and reduce production costs with the capabilities of creating new complex shapes. To achieve its aims, the project team successfully made the intermediate materials required to create superior flat sheet materials that could overcome moulding limitations and yield intricate three-dimensional (3D) shapes. The process involved heating and forming the intermediate materials using the extrusion of pellets to make sheets and adding electromagnetic heating additives such as iron powder or carbon nanotubes. The approach has helped achieve SRPs that weigh 30 % less, while also bringing costs down. The project created a particular SRP that costs almost the same per kilogramme as glass fibre and boasts more recycling credentials — just two factors that are bound to render this new product more popular. To demonstrate the new technologies, the project team produced several test items with different properties. These included a thick-walled fire hydrant cap that resists pressure and a lighter and more efficient fan blade. Other items included an efficient battery tray, a novel shin guard and a sturdy foot plate. While some of these applications are ready to exploit, others need further work to achieve commercial readiness. Overall, the technology is set to reduce material usage through lighter or more impact-resistant products, rendering the European plastics industry more eco-friendly and more competitive. ESPRIT's website highlighted the team's achievements and has helped disseminate its valuable findings, supported by academic papers, press releases and events. Lastly, an exploitation strategy seminar was organised in 2009, adding to the future commercial viability of the new technology and opening important new opportunities for European industry, thanks to SRP.