Core competence "polymer engineering"

Since 1994 Fraunhofer ICT has been researching technical plastics for practical use within its core competence of “polymer engineering and composite materials”. Our work ranges from polymer synthesis, materials technology, plastics processing, component development and production through to recycling.

Crushed plastic bottles heap ready for recycling

A focus on sustainability

”Polymer synthesis“ forms the basis for our further development of classic polymers such as polyurethanes, polyesters and polyamides, with the aim of improving their functionalities, performance and range of application. Our research focuses on increased sustainability – for example plastics made from bio-based raw materials or the complete recycling of used plastics - and the synthesis of additives such as flame retardants, sustainable plasticizer systems or compatibilizers for new plastic compounds. Modern flame retardant systems no longer require halogen-containing components. Recent polymer developments aim to combine thermoplastic and thermoset functionalities for use in high-strength bonding, self-healing systems or in the manufacture of plastic actuators.

The research group for ”material development and compounding technologies“ develops new compounding processes and material formulations. Particularly important topics include extractive compounding processes to reduce emissions, the removal of impurities to facilitate recycling, and innovative reactive extrusion for polymer synthesis or polymer modification in twin-screw extruders. Innovative materials are produced using modern processing technology, for example in the field of biobased or nano-functionalized polymer compounds for high-quality injection molding materials and for additive manufacturing processes.

In the thematic field of ”foam technologies“ we work on particle foam technology and the manufacture of foamed semi-finished products in the direct foaming process. Besides the optimization of conventional materials, we are concerned with the foaming of biobased and technical polymers that are more resistant to increased temperatures. New sintering technologies, such as radio frequency technology, are opening up completely new areas of application, for example by enabling the production of particle foam components from materials that could not previously be sintered. The development of autoclave technology for the production of particle foam materials increases the range of materials that can be processed.

The research group for ”injection and compression molding“ focuses on standard and specialized processes in the injection molding and flow compression molding of (fiber composite) materials. The integration of local, wound or tapelaid fiber composite structures along the load path in injection molded components significantly improves the mechanical properties between load application points. Our newly installed, cutting-edge SMC line opens up new possibilities in the production of SMC semi-finished products.

The industrialization of process chains for the production of highly resilient, continuousfiber-reinforced lightweight structures is our main research topic in the area of ”structural composites“. The core technologies involved are resin transfer molding, wet compression molding, thermoplastic tape laying and pultrusion. The placement of textile and pre-impregnated semi-finished products to produce preforms, their handling and combination with polymer foams and metallic structures and subsequent resin infusion or shaping are important steps within the processing chains.

In the field of ”microwave and plasma technology“ we develop customized equipment, measurement technology and methods for thermal processing and coating. Applications include microwave-based heating of polymers, accelerated curing of adhesives and resin systems, microwave-assisted chemical reaction technology and coating or modification of surfaces in the plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition process. A particular focus is on corrosion-resistant layers and nanoporous adhesive layers. Our investment in a plasma system operating at atmospheric pressure enables the integration of selected coating processes into existing industrial process chains.

Our team for ”material characterization and failure analysis“ carries out comprehensive investigations into polymer materials along the entire processing chain, from the raw material through to the component. In the event of damage or failure, we offer systematic analysis of the causes of the damage and the influences leading to failure, using analytical and technological measurement methods. In addition to the standardized testing of standard materials, we can also test fiber composites and polymer rigid foams, and can characterize polymer compounds with regard to their acoustic damping behavior.

In the field of ”online process monitoring“, spectral and microwave-based measurement methods are developed for process-integrated material monitoring and for process control. Our projects in the context of Industry 4.0 build on our significant experience in the process integration of sensors and processspecific know-how in the evaluation of the raw data obtained. The application and integration of big data and AI algorithms enables the quicker stabilization of immature processes.

In the area of ”recycling and waste management“ we develop processes and technologies for the material recycling of polymers, aiming for a complete reintroduction into high-quality applications. The focus is on technologies for the recycling of composite materials (GFRP, CFRP). Depending on their application, some thermoplastics in the consumer sector have to undergo an extraction process before they can be reused, in order to remove associated components such as flame retardants, colorants or other additives. In the case of thermoset polymer systems, a different recycling concept is followed. This involves chemical, solvolytic cleavage into components that can be very specifically repolymerized to form plastics in this system class. As an example, aircraft seats containing polyurethane foam were processed, the separated polyurethane was depolymerized and, after purification of the resulting decomposition products, a targeted synthesis of new seat foams with intrinsic flame retardancy was carried out. An accompanying life-cycle assessment quantified the sustainability of these systems according to various impact categories.

Hybrid seat back made from basalt fibers
Hybrid seat back made from basalt fibers
SMC production unit – small compounding pilot plant
© Fraunhofer ICT
SMC production unit – small compounding pilot plant
Biobased PLA semi-finished sheets made from two types of polylactide with different melting points
© Fraunhofer ICT
Biobased PLA semi-finished sheets made from two types of polylactide with different melting points

Fraunhofer Innovation Platforms (FIPs), and the Karlsruhe Research Factory

Our cooperation with the University of Western Ontario in the form of ”FIP-Composites@Western“ combines Fraunhofer ICT‘s expertise in the field of fiber composites with the know-how of one of Canada‘s leading universities. The large-scale production plant technology of this FIP enables joint research contracts to be carried out on an industrial scale for the North American market.

The Fraunhofer Innovation Platform for Composites Research at the Ulsan National Institute for Science and Technology represents a comprehensive cooperation with a leading Korean university in the field of science and technology. Ulsan is the largest industrial location in Korea. The research focus at this FIP is the use of fiber-reinforced plastics in lightweight applications, particularly in the automotive sector. The work is geared toward the requirements of the Asian market. The ”FIP-Composites@UNIST“ also has innovative and cutting-edge industrial-scale processing facilities for thermoplastic and thermoset material systems.

The ”Karlsruher Forschungsfabrik®“ (Karlsruhe Research Factory) is an initiative of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft with its institutes ICT and IOSB as well as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT-wbk) on the East Campus of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Together with industrial partners, the aim is the rapid upscaling of new, still immature production processes to series scale. The project will make an important contribution to the ”Artificial Intelligence Strategy“ of the German Federal Government.

Facilities and equipment

  • Twin screw extruders with 18 to 32 mm screwdiameter
  • Dosing systems for liquid and highly viscous media and gravimetric dosing systems for pellets, powder, fibers, etc.
  • Laboratory for reactive extrusion, equipped with safety devices for work with hazardous substances
  • Parallel-running hydraulic compression molding machines for the processing of plastics with 6,300 and 36,000 kN clamping force
  • Direct LFT unit
  • Injection molding units with clamping forces from 350 to 7,000 kN
  • Advanced processing technologies for injection molding, multicomponent injection molding, thermoplastic foam injection molding expansion foaming and thermoset injection molding
  • Injection molding compounder with 40 mm twin-screw extruder and 7000 kN clamping force
  • Automated thermoplastic tape-laying process for nonwovens with a diameter of 2 m
  • Plant technology for radiation-induced vacuum consolidation for thermoplastic nonwovens up to 0.94 x 1.74 m²
  • Automated winding technology to produce complex loop structures
  • 3D printing technologies for processing functionalized polymers - filament-based and AKF technology
  • Particle foam technology with twin-screw extruder, underwater pelletizing, prefoamer, and a (radio frequency) molding machine
  • Tandem foam extrusion plant for foamed semi-finished products
  • SMC production line with advanced sensor technology and BMC kneader
  • Polyurethane processing PU-RIM and PU fiber spraying technology
  • RIM/RTM technologies for the processing of thermoset and thermoplastic materials
  • Pultrusion technology with injection technology for thermoset and thermoplastic matrix systems
  • Microwave equipment with generators for a wide range of applications
  • Microwave-based sensor technology for process monitoring
  • Various low-pressure plasma systems
  • Robot-assisted atmospheric plasma unit
  • Measuring apparatus to determine the dielectric properties of materials in a wide frequency and temperature range
  • Extensive and cutting-edge equipment in the field of materials testing and analysis