High Performance Polymers in Industry
High Performance Polymers are used extensively in the most demanding applications, and everyday millions of people rely on products that contain such polymers, from aeroplanes and cars, to smartphones & medical devices and oil & gas platforms.
The global demand for High Performance Polymers is growing due to the need to improve energy efficiency, reduce natural resource depletion, produce thinner, smaller and smarter electronic devices, and support a growing, ageing population.
In the aerospace market High Performance Polymers are replacing metals due to the continue need to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency, whilst allowing for simplified manufacture, a faster assembly and a long and reliable service life for aircraft.
Similarly in the automotive industry, manufacturers are looking for solutions that will allow them to produce cars that are more environmentally friendly, whilst reducing the cost of ownership by extending part life. High Performance Polymers meet this industry demands by providing parts with extended durability and that deliver reliable component lifecycles, whilst also meeting the consumer demand for safer, more economical and comfortable cars (Figure 1).
The high temperature, high chemical resistance of High Performance Polymers lends itself to extreme environments such as those found in the oil and gas industry. In such extreme environments, only these materials deliver the combination of properties required, such as exceptional heat, chemical and wear resistance, high strength and stiffness, dimensional stability, predictability and long term reliability.
Another rapid expanding market for High Performance Polymers is the electronics sector. Here the demand for higher performance, portability, wireless/high frequency, and longer life, as well as concerns about the environment, are all shaping the way electronic parts are designed and what materials are used. To this sector High Performance Polymers provide electronic components with an exceptional combination of strength and wear properties resulting in greater part functionality, reliability and cost savings for designers.
High Performance Polymers in Medical
As with high-end industrial applications, High Performance Polymers have been exponentially used in the Medical sector over the last 15 years. In the medical sector the PAEK family of High Performance Polymers in particular, has been widely adopted. The PAEK family of materials are widely regarded as the highest performing polymer with good retention of mechanical properties over a wide range of temperatures and conditions.
The last two decades have seen an increasing demand for new material solutions in medical driven by the needs of a global ageing population. Ageing patients are staying active for longer and demanding improved therapies from their doctors. Such leads to a wider range of treatment options to address shifting patient demographics and attitudes. Furthermore pricing pressures and concerns over complications associated with metal based implants are growing.
Spinal fusion was an early adopter of PAEK High Performance Polymer solutions, in particular PolyEtherEtherKetone (PEEK) polymer, first introduced as a biomaterial by Invibio Biomaterial Solutions over 15 years ago. Since then, implantable PolyEtherEtherKetone (PEEK) polymers have matured into an established and widely accepted family of biomaterials for spinal devices. In addition to biocompatibility, biostability and compatibility with diagnostic imaging, these advanced high Performance Polymers provide a range of mechanical properties that are well suited to the demanding environment of spinal implants.
Following from its success in providing a more natural solution to spinal fusion (Figure 2), medical device engineers have over the last decade increasingly turned to implantable grade high performance polymers to aid their development of innovative long and short term medical devices. This expansion in choice meant that designers could revisit designs intended for traditional materials such as titanium and ceramics and create new platforms, surgical approaches and techniques. These were realised to provide new medical devices, which over the past decade have been used in a range of medical fields such as: orthopaedics, trauma, cardio & neuro, craniomaxillofacial, and dental.
The versatility and stability of implantable PEEK polymer, has enabled its properties to be tailored through the addition of compounds to yield application specific benefits. For instance in applications such as trauma where a requirement for a stronger and stiffer material is found, the addition of reinforcing fibres to the base polymer has allowed for the material to be successfully used. Therefore such as seen for aerospace, when there is a need for a substantial increase in strength, the PAEK family of high-performance polymers can be combined with glass or carbon fibres to improve is mechanical performance whilst retaining all its temperature and chemical stability characteristics.
High Performance Polymers in Dental
Similarly to the medical implantable sector, we have seen the emergence of High Performance Polymers solutions in dentistry. Polyetheretherketone (PEEK) dental solutions first appeared in 2002 and since have cemented their role as the material of choice for temporary abutments and healing caps. The excellent soft tissue behaviour of PEEK combined with its mechanical performance and biocompatibility made it the material of choice for such temporary applications, but the material has remained somewhat under-exploited.
Over the last decades dentistry has seen the increase use of full arch metal implant supported prosthetics as replacement for missing teeth in edentulous patients. Due to the potential shock absorbing properties and patients’ demands for metal free restorations, there is rising enthusiasm surrounding the expansion of the use of High Performance Polymers such as PEEK as permanent metal alternatives for such cases (Figure 3). Such materials are extremely interesting for use in full arch frameworks due to its proven biocompatible nature and its shock absorbing characteristics.
It seems likely that in the same way that dentistry has benefited from a move to a digital working environment with the introduction of digital scanning, CAD/CAM milling and 3D printing (additive manufacturing), a transition from traditional metal based materials to metal free high performance polymers as solutions for premium implant prosthetics, would further enable this next generation of patient care.