Why the plastics industry relies heavily on microscopy analysis

By Luigi Raspolini - January 24, 2019

Ever since oil became fundamental to industry, scientists and engineers from all around the world have carried out more and more research into how different organic molecules can be combined in certain patterns to obtain new materials with amazing properties. Commonly called plastics, they are known to the scientific community as polymers — chemical compounds with a highly-engineered chemical structure and composition. The analysis of these compounds is crucial in helping to improve polymer production processes. This article discusses how electron microscopy can provide the analysis that polymer developers need to improve product quality significantly.

Learn how a polymers manufacturer uses SEM to improve their products
Download the SABIC case study 

The polymer archetypes

Over the years, polymers have silently and smoothly become part of our everyday life, replacing several different materials and outperforming them in terms of technical specifications and price. In some cases, they also represent a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to the materials that are currently used.

What polymers look like is an easy question to answer. They can come in all shapes and sizes, and are used for a diverse range of applications:

  • Fine, colored powders can be mixed with tissues or polymeric foils to dye them — the homogeneity of distribution is essential to obtain uniform coloring
  • Plastic fibers are used as a textile material, but can also create ultra-fine filters for molecular filtration
  • In every kitchen, there is polymeric foil. This is used to wrap food leftovers to preserve them, while similar but more resistant foils are used for industrial packaging

Despite being very different — these materials have three things in common:

  • Their production processes are becoming increasingly complex;
  • The sizes of the products are getting smaller;
  • Their properties are becoming more difficult to measure.

(Scanning) electron microscopy within the plastics industry: why?

It is in response to this need for improvement that the plastics industry relies heavily on electron microscope images and analysis. With scanning electron microscopes (SEM), scientists can image features as small as a few nanometers, and measure important parameters such as the size of particles, the diameters of fibers, and the thickness of foils. These results help to improve the polymer composition and production process, thereby enhancing the performance of any products that are developed.

SABIC-SEM-image-of-dispersion-polymer-blend.jpg     SABIC-SEM-image-cellular-structure-polymer-foam.jpg

Fig 1: SEM image of dispersion of a polymer blend      Fig 2.: SEM image of cellular structure of polymer foam
of two materials

SEMs are becoming popular amongst polymer developers because their cost is decreasing and they are becoming easier to use. The results that SEMs provide help polymer developers to raise product quality to a higher level — making them more competitive in highly competitive markets.

Attached to this blog, you will find a SEM case study for SABIC — a leading company in the production of chemicals, plastics, and many other products. Download it now to get insights into how a SEM can be used to investigate different samples and how SEM technology can be applied in an industrial environment:


About the author

Luigi Raspolini is an application engineer for the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Luigi is constantly looking for new approaches to materials characterization, surface roughness measurements, and composition analysis. He is passionate about improving user experiences and demonstrating the best way to image every kind of sample.

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