Polystyrene is one of the world's most widely used plastics. From building insulation to protection equipment and packaging materials, the strength and ultra-lightweight of foamed polystyrene ensure success. Made from micro-beads of polymer, expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam can be expanded to very low density and moulded into complex shapes. While the conventional manufacturing process of this material can pose significant challenges to develop products that meet consumers' evolving needs, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and Quebec-based EPS bead manufacturer NexKemia, have developed an innovative method to make this process better adapted to answer new market demand.
NexKemia has been producing these sub-millimetre pellets for the construction and consumer goods industries since 2008. Polymerizing EPS from 7 batch reactors, the company sends 60 million kilograms annually to clients in Canada and the U.S. who shape them into final products. "Since we launched NexKemia, we have been effecting substantial innovations and improvements over the conventional suspension polymerization process," says Pierre Beaudry, NexKemia's General Manager. "But certain grades of EPS cannot be produced this way, so that was restricting our ability to offer clients a variety of specialty products that the market is highly demanding."
But that is about to change. With the help of the NRC, NexKemia has confirmed the feasibility of producing value-added EPS products through a versatile, highly responsive and continuous direct-melt extrusion process. The adoption of this new method will draw on the NRC's expertise in polymer and composite products manufacturing technologies as well as a collaborative approach that will facilitate technology transfer.
From concept to consumer
According to Beaudry, the company turned to the NRC for technical expertise in developing the new process. At the heart of this collaboration was an innovative approach to sharing resources. "Over the years, the NRC had developed extensive expertise in polymer foaming, especially using the extrusion process," he says. "From previous collaborations, we knew that they had a pilot-scale extruder in their Boucherville lab but were missing a piece of equipment, a pelletizer." The teams agreed that NexKemia would buy the machine and lend it to the NRC so that they could do research, development and testing of the specialty resins under the same roof. The NRC supplied the rest of the equipment for extrusion, metering, safety and the like.
Michel Champagne, NRC technical lead in the Advanced Manufacturing program and team lead for the Advanced Polymer Composites group, points out that the first phase of the project focused on procuring, commissioning and validating the pelletizer's effectiveness on the NRC foam-extrusion pilot line. "We proved that the 2 machines worked seamlessly together to craft the specialty EPS resin." They then went on to research, thus developing and testing multiple ideas of new beads extruded from customized formulas. The project was directly tapping on the large expertise in foam extrusion developed by the NRC team over the past years and was perfectly aligned with the Polymer and Composite Products Manufacturing research program.
Within 18 months, the new extrusion process was not only fine-tuned for producing regular EPS beads with performance levels competing with NexKemia's standard reactor grade products, but pilot testing of multiple value-added products was successfully completed; including an EPS with improved thermal insulation properties, an innovative expandable polymer with enhanced impact resistance and a new grade made from recycled plastic. The results were so promising that NexKemia decided to take the products to market sooner than anticipated. They installed the technology in their Mansonville location and began scaling up production. "To that end, we invested $15 million in a new building as well as in the purchase of a first extrusion production line. The installation of a second production line is also planned for the end of 2023. Eventually, we believe that more than 25 million kilograms of extrusion resins will be added to our market." The company plans to hire up to 25 new employees over the next 2 years.
The circular economy
Beyond creating new jobs and financial benefits for the Canadian economy, NexKemia's new venture is breaking ground in sustainable manufacturing. With the ability of the new process to accommodate polymers from recycled streams, NexKemia can now support clients who are under increasing pressure to offer more environmentally-friendly products to their customers.
"With this disruptive technology, a first in the North American EPS market, we can now launch our sustainable product line," Beaudry explains. He adds that the new facility will also be able to receive recycled plastic and incorporate it into millions of tonnes of material that itself will be recyclable. Over the next decade, the sustainable products could form 50% of NexKemia's EPS market. And the process could be used for other polymers as well, opening entirely new horizons in materials development.
"Working with the NRC has been instrumental to our success in this venture," says Beaudry. "We are happy to be working with a team of solid scientists who can put themselves in our shoes, understand our problems and bring us ideas that we can apply in real life." And with such healthy collaboration, doing business can help you transform ideas into innovation.