Thermoplastic elastomers TPE ,the upcoming materials replacing rubber!

Thermoplastic elastomers TPE ,the upcoming materials replacing rubber!

Thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are a type of plastic that have been refined to create a soft, rubbery feel—and they’re everywhere. TPE is common in household objects, like the grip on your toothbrush, the soft lid of a sippy cup, your dog’s chew toy, and cellphone cases.

Often, TPEs are compared to a rubber or silicone. It can be difficult to determine whether a material is TPE, silicone or rubber simply by look and feel. At the scientific level, rubber and silicone are both thermoset materials, meaning once the material is molded it is “set” and cannot be broken down to be molded again. Thermoplastics, on the other hand, can be reformed and reset over and over again using heat. In many cases, TPEs are chosen for products over rubber because of their flexibility, versatility and recyclability.

The innovative possibilities of TPEs are nearly infinite. Anything you touch that feels like a soft plastic or has a rubbery surface can be made from TPEs—everything from a gearshift knob in your car and the handles on your power tools to medical tubing and syringe stoppers.

There are several types.TPVs (thermoplastic vulcanizates) or TPUs (thermoplastic polyurethane)  are two of the most common. Other common types of TPEs are TPR (thermoplastic rubber) and S-TPEs (styrenics).

While TPEs are useful in their basic form, they are often blended with other materials to make a new kind of TPE (like TPVs and TPUs) to produce the ideal properties for a specific application. In fact, some blends are so unique to the client’s needs that the blend becomes proprietary. Because the material has never been combined or processed in this precise way, the “recipe” becomes a trade secret that the manufacturer saves for future use cases.

In general, TPEs are recommended when you need a material that can be:

  • easily manufactured
  • bonded to rigid polymers
  • molded into a unique design
  • colored
  • produced to a specific hardness, toughness or surface feel requirement
  • recyclable
  • chemical resistant or fire retardant
  • noise and vibration dampening

One of the first things to consider is the necessary hardness for your application. The versatility of TPEs enables production along a full spectrum of hardness levels, from the consistency of a gummy bear to that of a bowling ball. Another important consideration is the surface feel and amount of friction. Some products call for a grippy surface, like the handle of a fishing pole. Others require a smooth, nearly frictionless feel, like a phone case that you want to easily slip in and out of your pocket. You may also need to think about how you want the product to behave when stretched; there are other properties such stretch and tests that can be performed to achieve the appropriate amount of flexibility based on your application.

TPEs are often chosen over similar materials like rubber or silicone for several reasons. One of the most commonly cited advantages of TPEs is the ability to produce products via high-volume injection molding, which is an extremely cost-effective process. This means a large volume of product (anywhere from tens of thousands to over a million units) can be created by heating the TPE blend and injecting it into a mold, where the TPEs cool and form the desired shape. Working with TPEs also gives you extensive design freedom, customization and color options.

If thermoplastic elastomers can do all this, Is there any reason TPEs is not suitable ? For one, you can’t put a product or device made with TPEs in the oven at 200 degrees Celcius, which you can do with rubbers. Thermoset materials like natural rubber and silicone can retain their properties in both hot and cold (down to -50 degrees C) environments, and under extreme pressure. Additionally, thermoset materials can have more chemical and oil resistance, so they may be more suitable than TPEs for applications such as a part under the hood of a car. 

There are several reasons TPEs are a more eco-conscious option than thermoset materials like rubber or silicone. Thermoplastic itself means “the ability to be reprocessed by heat.” Because of this, scrap materials during the manufacturing process can be reused. Or, if a product is made incorrectly or needs to be adjusted during the prototyping phase, it can simply be heated again and reshaped, creating no waste. With thermoset materials like a rubber tire, the options are much more limited. Sure, you can grind up a tire into a material for the track around a high school, but the material itself can’t be changed or transformed into a completely new and recyclable product.