This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II project aims to continuously produce multilayered microcellular from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) for rigid printing substrate applications. There is an increasing demand for sustainable substrates in the printing sector, which is America's third largest manufacturing industry. PET is the most recycled plastic in the United States. However, only 28% of the 5.15 billion pounds of water bottles used annually are currently recycled. Products made from RPET could utilize this untapped resource and in turn, could be recycled again, making them environmentally sustainable. The proposed approach is to fusion bond thin microcellular RPET sheets into thicker panels, thereby eliminating the need for a bonding adhesive, which in turn eliminates volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions that cause indoor air pollution. In Phase I of this project we established lab-scale feasibility for continuous fusion bonding of microcellular RPET sheets to produce such panels. In Phase II, we will build a production-scale laminator that is capable of producing microcellular RPET panels with a size of 4' x 8' at a speed of at least 8 feet/minute. The commercial feasibility of manufacturing this product will be established by developing a detailed cost model.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project will be to satisfy the printing industry's rapidly growing need for sustainable products. The microcellular RPET panels to be developed are targeted for use in rigid printing substrate applications. Compared to current materials, the advantages of these panels include significantly higher post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, zero VOCs, premium printability without the need for surface treatment, enhanced barrier properties against mold/mildew/corrosion, excellent conformability, and compatibility with end-of-life recycling. The Phase II research will focus on using RPET as a raw material due to the immediate positive environmental and economic impacts. The resulting increase in the use of RPET in high-value applications will thereby provide an economic stimulus to the recycling industry. The results of this research will also expand the application frontiers for solid-state microcellular plastics technology and enable collaborative research to develop further markets for these lightweight materials in other industries such as construction, transportation, and maritime. Finally, the new technology resulting from this research will preserve resources for a sustainable environment, enhance the competitiveness of the US plastics industry, and create new job opportunities that will benefit society as a whole.