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Foam Core Materials

Tasuns Composite Technology Co.,Ltd | Updated: Nov 12, 2017

Foams are one of the most common forms of core material. They can be manufactured from a variety of synthetic polymers including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polyurethane (PU), polymethacrylamide, polyetherimide (PEI) and styreneacrylonitrile (SAN). They can be supplied in densities ranging from less than 30kg/m3 to more than 300kg/m3, although the most used densities for composite structures range from 40 to 200 kg/m3. They are also available in a variety of thicknesses, typically from 5mm to 50mm.


PVC Foam

Closed-cell polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foams are one of the most commonly used core materials for the construction of high performance sandwich structures. Although strictly they are a chemical hybrid of PVC and polyurethane, they tend to be referred to simply as 'PVC foams'.

PVC foams offer a balanced combination of static and dynamic properties and good resistance to water absorption. They also have a large operating temperature range of typically -240°C to +80°C (-400°F to +180°F), and are resistant to many chemicals. Although PVC foams are generally flammable, there are fire-retardant grades that can be used in many fire-critical applications, such as train components. When used as a core for sandwich construction with FRP skins, its reasonable resistance to styrene means that it can be used safely with polyester resins and it is therefore popular in many industries. It is normally supplied in sheet form, either plain, or grid-scored to allow easy forming to shape.

There are two main types of PVC foam: crosslinked and uncrosslinked with the uncrosslinked foams sometimes being referred to as 'linear'. The uncrosslinked foams (such as Airex R63.80) are tougher and more flexible, and are easier to heat-form around curves. However, they have some lower mechanical properties than an equivalent density of cross-linked PVC, and a lower resistance to elevated temperatures and styrene. Their cross-linked counterparts are harder but more brittle and will produce a stiffer panel, less susceptible to softening or creeping in hot climates. Typical cross-linked PVC products include the Herex C-series of foams, Divinycell H and HT grades and Polimex Klegecell and Termanto products.

A new generation of toughened PVC foams is now also becoming available which trade some of the basic mechanical properties of the cross-linked PVC foams for some of the improved toughness of the linear foams. Typical products include Divincell HD grade.

Owing to the nature of the PVC/polyurethane chemistry in cross-linked PVC foams, these materials need to be thoroughly sealed with a resin coating before they can be safely used with low-temperature curing prepregs. Although special heat stabilisation treatments are available for these foams, these treatments are primarily designed to improve the dimensional stability of the foam, and reduce the amount of gassing that is given off during elevated temperature processing.

Polystyrene Foams

Although polystyrene foams are used extensively in sail and surf board manufacture, where their light weight (40kg/m3), low cost and easy to sand characteristics are of prime importance, they are rarely employed in high performance component construction because of their low mechanical properties. They cannot be used in conjunction with polyester resin systems because they will be dissolved by the styrene present in the resin.

PMI (Polymethacrylimide) Foams

For a given density, PMI (polymethacrylimide) foams such as ROHACELL® offer some of the highest overall strengths and stiffnesses of foam cores. Their characteristics also include high dimensional stability, a closed cell structure and high fatigue life, and they can be cured and used at elevated temperatures. Their overall cost and performance characteristics mean that, to date, their use has mainly been in higher performance composite parts such as helicopter rotor blades, ailerons and stringer profiles in pressure bulkheads.

Styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) co-polymer Foams

SAN foams behave in a similar way to toughened cross-linked PVC foams. They have most of the static properties of cross-linked PVC cores, yet have much higher elongations and toughness. They are therefore able to absorb impact levels that would fracture b

SAN foams are replacing linear PVC foams in many applications since they have much of the linear PVC's toughness and elongation, yet have a higher temperature performance and better static properties. However, they are still thermoformable, which helps in the manufacture of curved parts. Heat-stabilised grades of SAN foams can also be more simply used with low-temperature curing prepregs, since they do not have the interfering chemistry inherent in the PVC's. Typical SAN products include ATC Core-Cell's A-series foams.

Other thermoplastics

As new techniques develop for the blowing of foams from thermoplastics, the range of expanded materials of this type continues to increase. Typical is PEI foam, an expanded polyetherimide/polyether sulphone, which combines outstanding fire performance wit