Materials engineering

Beautiful, smooth and impermeable

São Paulo company develops a new material that substitutes granite, marble and stainless steel with advantages

MIGUEL BOYAYANWhoever is not in the business of civil construction, architecture, interior decoration or design probably never heard a word about a product known as solid surface material, SSM, used in the manufacture of sink casts, lavatories, counters, surfaces and shelves for kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, clinics or chemistry and pharmaceutical laboratories. One is dealing with a beautiful material, agreeable to the touch and that can be used in the place of granite, marble, stainless steel and formica.

Until a short time ago it wasn’t produced in this country. But a grouping of circumstances and a touch of daring made the São Paulo company, Perc Engenharia, invest in the product’s development and become the first national manufacturer. It all began in the middle of the decade of the 1990s, according to the explanation given by the engineer Paulo Carlos Galin, a partner-director at Perc. “On making the projected cost for the building a shop, I got to know of a new material sold in the form of sheets by Du Pont (the multinational in the chemical sector), given the name Corian. It was a type of SSM, whose processing, I realized was very similar to that of wood. We learned to work with this product and we began a new activity in the company”!, recalls  Galin.

The “discovery” of the material was the first circumstance. The second came up starting from the environmental concerns of Galin. Unhappy with the debris generated at the moment of cutting the Corian sheets – a kind of sawdust n the form of flower petals -, he got in touch with  researchers at the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN) to attempt to develop a technique for recycling the residues. “The project, nevertheless, didn’t appear to be viable. At that same time I got to know about the existence of the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PPIE) and I thought: “Why then don’t we attempt to develop a national product similar to Corian?”. And this is what we did, says the engineer. With FAPESP’s financial support, the Perc and IPEN technicians attained an ideal formula for the product. Next, they developed the process for the manufacture of sheets and sinks. Into the bargain, they invented an adhesive made of the same material – that is in the liquid state -, used to bind the sinks to the counter.

Known abroad as Solid Surface Material, the SSM is a compound obtained starting from special acrylic resins and mineral fillers, a technical term that means certain inorganic particulate materials, minerals, mainly alumina, a derivative of aluminum. This is an impermeable material and, for not being porous like wood, granite or marble, does not absorb any type of liquid and is thus more hygienic. At the same time, stains and small scratches can be removed with common abrasive cleaners and a piece of steel wool. “As well as this, its joints are imperceptible, since the pieces are glued together with a bonder in a process of cold fusion”, underlines  Galin.

The detail of the joints is important and, in certain cases, signifies a major advantage. “For the manufacture of a large counter with sinks in a hospital or pharmaceutical laboratory, for example, the stainless steel sheets are glues with silicon and the joints can turn themselves into points where bacteria hide out. As the SSM joints are imperceptible, they lower the risks”, explains the Perc director.

Sheet market
Although they dominate the manufacturing process for both the sheets and the sinks made from SSM, Perc, for now, is producing only the sinks. The reason is their commercial strategy. “In order to manufacture the sheets, with standard dimensions of 76 centimeters by 3.86 meters and 12.5 millimeters of thickness, the company would need to make an important investment in their production line. As well as this, the sales volume has to be large, in the order of 1,000 sheets per month, so that it would attain economy of scale. This number is difficult to reach since the market for SSM isn’t large in Brazil”, says engineer Galin. Perhaps for being a more expensive material. For this reason Perc opted to manufacture only the sinks, which are molded starting from the same polymeric solution used to make the sheets and the adhesive. The company’s main clients are multinationals that are working with similar imported materials. Such as Corian from Dupont, Surrel from Pertech and HiMacs from LG Electronics.

For the manufacture of the sinks, Perc needed to mount a chemistry laboratory. The production process begins with the acquisition of acrylic resins, obtained from  polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA), and other raw materials, such as additive pigments and mineral fillers. “We make a mixture inside a reactor and we generate a polymeric compound solution, viscous like honey. Next the solution is placed in a mold, in a process know as casting, for the manufacture of the sink”, says Marcos Sobral Ribeiro, one of the two chemists at Perc’s research and development (R&D) department, together with Jaime Valério Ferreira. The curing of the cast is done at room temperature and the reaction is completed in about an hour and a half.

“After many attempts, we managed to refine the manufacture without the need to resort to high temperatures. This simplifies the process and reduces production cost”, underlined partner Ribeiro. The final stage in the manufacturing consists in placing the molded piece in an oven at around 90o Celsius, for a post-cure, with the purpose of eliminating any free monomers (residue from the acrylic resin) that did not undergo reaction. The difference between the manufacture of the sink casts and the adhesive is in the concentration of the mineral fillers and some additives. According to engineer Paulo Galin, the polymeric compound solution used to make the sinks can also be used for the molding of other pieces. Perc, indeed, has already received orders to provide tops for rubbish bins and ashtrays distributed in common areas of a São Paulo  shopping center.

Perc’s initial goal is to commercialize 100 sinks per month. The product is available in six different models, with formats and colors that are different, and is manufactured with materials that confer antibacterial action to it. One of the first contracts was signed with the São Paulo  government, for whom the firm is going to supply 16 sinks, which are going to be installed in the nursery of a hospital center currently being built. Confident in the success of the product, the company has already set out plans to export the product to other countries such as the United States, Japan and Europe, where materials based on SSM are more widely known.

The Project
Development of compounds starting from ceramic residues as substitutes for granite, wood  or other top class coating (nº 01/08476-7); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Paulo Carlos Galin – Perc; Investment R$ 273,934.00 (FAPESP)