Materials Matter: Searching for Stronger, Safer Options

Published On
Jul 16, 2018

In April 2018, a fire broke out in New York’s Trump Tower. An overloaded electrical circuit caused a fire that killed one person and injured six firefighters. By some estimates, electrical fires have reached a level where they cause more residential deaths than cigarette smoking (a leading cause of death from fire).

Safety concerns and increasing demands on better and lighter electrical equipment are propelling the market for materials that help create high-performing products. Materials matter.

Manufacturers continuously seek materials that offer key advantages to end-users, not only for the insulating properties of equipment, but also for the safety of personnel. To preserve human life, they are searching for new ways to prevent electrical fires and damage when certain conditions are met.

Electric cars and hybrid electric cars are becoming more popular. The power within electric vehicles (EVs) has raised safety concerns as the news has reported some alarming events. Like other sophisticated electronic systems and equipment, EVs are supplied by lithium-ion cell batteries, which pose greater risk because they store electrical energy and can be an ignition source, as they are not your typical cellphone or low-voltage battery. When lithium cells short, they spark. They also have solvents that can be quite flammable and present the threat of explosion and damaging fire.

Many liken lithium cells to potentially causing a firecracker effect when a spark ignites its solvent. While battery manufacturers have done their best to ensure their products are safe, it is impossible to say whether other electronic equipment and components are susceptible to the “firecracker” risk seen in EVs.

The message for electrical contractors is that energy-storage devices are found in residential, commercial and industrial buildings and within electrical systems and equipment. Any defect or problem with these devices can cause more damage than one might assume.

As EVs and other, more sophisticated electronic and electrical products enter the marketplace, manufacturers seek lightweight materials. This is particularly true in the automotive industry, where thinner materials and plastic and composite materials that allow sonic welds and connections are highly sought after. Such bonding provides sufficient strength while reducing weight.

Better properties

At the National Plastics Expo (NPE) held in May 2018 in Orlando, Fla., plastics vendors showcased their application of sonically welded engineered plastics used to hold such items as sensors in automobiles where weight and integrity is of great concern. The introduction of such material is slated to serve an in-demand market as lightweight materials gain ground.

According to data collected by Transparency Market Research, the global lightweight automotive materials market will be worth more than $300 million by the end of 2024, and the demand will expand at 8.3 percent per year through 2024.

Ryan King, development segment lead for plastics at Americhem, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, said thinner walled materials are in, as are glass-filled polyesters that help decrease wall thicknesses, without sacrificing thermal and inherent material properties. The glass-filled material offers those properties with a definite weight reduction.

Also at NPE were vendors with materials that contribute to better performance for electrical applications, including insulation and product application.

Harlan Brown is a technical manager and ceramic engineer in the specialty glass platform for the 3M advanced materials division. He said specialty glass material is used with 3M formulations and used on aluminum substrates, printed circuit boards and high-energy circuits. The materials are combined with fine metals and organics and silkscreened onto a substrate. Such formulations are becoming more sophisticated as customer specs further down the supply chain demand higher performing products with materials that support their needs.

3M’s powders are also used in other materials that are being applied to the next generation of materials. For example, they are used to make coatings that are sprayed onto varistors used in surge protection. Surge protection in electrical distribution systems is seeing an uptick because many developing nations still don’t have adequate surge protection in high-voltage distribution systems. Using such coatings in varistor fabrication provides good insulation with easier application.

3M also sees demand for nonflammable fluoropolymers for insulation on Cat 5 cables that are being used in the expansion of bandwidth in cities and communities. Fluoropolymers are commonly used in commercial buildings because of their flame-retardant properties and good insulation resistance.

Materials used in electrical products and components (particularly in insulation and specialty applications) aren’t always at the forefront of electrical discussions. However, they have great influence on the weight, performance, safety and fire suppression for the products and materials they are fabricated with.

We can expect materials used in electrical equipment and component fabrication to get more sophisticated as companies seek to serve customer needs and, of course, improve safety in a world where electrical and electronic products are everywhere to be found.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at

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