Fluoropolymers are a group of plastics with a set of unique characteristics, which make them ideal for a variety of heavy industries, day-to-day applications and everyday uses. With their ability to withstand harsh and aggressive environments, fluoropolymers are readily embraced by the oil and chemical industries. Their sterile and non-stick properties are also particularly suited for medical instruments, food and drink equipment, as well as more unusual day-to-day applications, such as ski bindings and waterproof jackets.
Fluoropolymers, also known as fluoroplastics, refer to a group of plastics in which the molecules contain both carbon and fluorine. Replacing hydrogen atoms with fluorine alters the properties of the material, giving it greatly desirable characteristics for a variety of applications and industries. These characteristics include a high resistance to chemicals, electricity and temperatures and non-stick properties.
Of the many different fluoropolymer types available, each contain unique characteristics suited to their own specific uses. They are usually referred to in their acronym form. Examples include PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene), FEP (Fluorinated ethylene propylene), PFA (Per Fluor Alkoxy), PVDF (Poly Vinylidene Fluoride), ETFE (Ethylene Tetra Fluoro Ethylene Copolymer) and E-CTFE (Ethylene-Chloro Tri Fluoro Ethylene).
Because of their high chemical resistance, fluoropolymers are readily embraced by industries which require a material able to withstand aggressive environments. In chemical processing plants, for example, the non-stick and chemical resistance of PTFE, FEP and PFA make them perfect for use in the processing of hazardous chemicals and are often used for tank lining and fluid control.
The processes that take place in the oil industry similarly benefit from the use of fluoropolymers in the creation of vital equipment such as umbilicals for fluid delivery, and encapsulation probes and thermowells to measure and detect level changes. Fluoroplastics resistance to high temperatures, oil residue and brine similarly consolidate their standing as a superior material for the off-shore environment.
While fluoropolymers tend to be associated with heavy industry, they can also be found much closer to home. Following PTFE’s accidental invention in 1938 by Dr. Roy. J. Plunkett, the whole fluoropolymer family has since been realised as an incredibly convenient material in the use and application of everyday objects.
For example in the medical industry, the non-toxic and non-stick properties of FEP and PTFE have been recognised as ideal for the manufacture of internal and external life-saving equipment such as catheters, syringes and bio-containment vessels. Expanded PTFE (also known as ePTFE) can even be manipulated to produce a mesh-like structure that, due to its porosity and flexibility, can be implanted into the body in procedures such as vascular grafts and hernia repair.
The high-performing properties of fluoropolymers have also been recognised as superior to other plastics in the food and drink market. PTFE, FEP and PFA bring an abundance of benefits to the food and drink production, from cooking equipment to food coverings, conveyor belt rollers, UV lamp coatings, temperature sensor casing and non-stick surface covers.
Fluoropolymers are also present in some unexpected applications. PTFE, for instance, is not only instrumental in the safe delivery of oil and gas, but in that of musical notes too! This fluoropolymer can be found in the creation of valve oil, which is a lubricant for valves of brass instruments.
Other unusual fluoropolymer uses include their presence in ski bindings as an anti-friction device or in dental fillings. Fluoropolymer coatings are also popular and used extensively in applications such as coating waterproof jackets to protect them from the rain and coatings on kitchen pans to ensure that their surface is non-stick.