Interest in viewing aquatic life, fascination with environmental displays and renewal of urban waterfronts bode well for suppliers of acrylic panels. Designs at more zoos and aquariums incorporate the concept of virtual immersion and circulate visitors through acrylic tunnels, said Steven S. Kesler, vice president of sales and marketing for Reynolds Polymer Technology Inc. in Grand Junction, Colo.
``The viewers can almost touch and feel the exhibits,'' he said.
The plastics industry is benefitting from the material's clear advantages.
``Your product has been invisible as it subtly replaces other products,'' said Jon Coe, partner in CLR Design Inc. in Philadelphia.
``When millions of people see huge areas of pure transparent plastic, it is a great showcase for your industry.''
Reynolds manufactures, markets and installs monolithically cast acrylic panels, and develops concepts for custom acrylic and glass displays in hotels, restaurants and zoos. It also makes acrylic tubing and rods, hyperbaric chambers, submersibles and architectural art pieces.
Roger Reynolds II and his son Roger Reynolds III formed the company in 1987 as a spinoff from plastics composites fabricator-distributor Reynolds & Taylor Inc., which had run the fast-growing business as its cast polymers division.
Globally, Reynolds competes in the acrylic panel market with two Japanese firms that supply laminated panels: Nippura Co. Ltd., a Sumitomo Chemical Co. affiliate; and Ryoko Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd.
Although data is scarce, the three companies combined had annual acrylic panel sales of about $20 million to $30 million.
Some acrylic panels outlast an exhibit's expected 20-year life cycle. During a tank renovation, panels can be removed, annealed, sanded and polished, Kesler said, and they become as good as new at a fraction of replacement cost. Glass resists scratching better, but its hardness prevents re-moval of scratches that develop.
Acrylic's safety features
Safety concerns favor acrylic. Sharp impact loads can break glass, but acrylic resists catastrophic failure. Designers can lower, but not eliminate, the breakage possibility of glass.
``We're pushing the envelope, making larger and more expansive aquarium windows and dealing with deeper water,'' said Frederick Wales, vice president and chief operating officer of International Design for the Environment Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
Using autoclave, fabrication and shaping processes, Reynolds thermoforms or casts acrylic into curved panels, walk-in windows, candy-cane sections, cylinders, tunnels and spherical windows. Designers can make exhibits of glass, too, but creativity is the key, Kesler said.
Reynolds' 1996 domestic work includes the Oregon Coast Aquarium's Keiko whale exhibit in Newport, Ore., and projects in Virginia and New Mexico.
A 14-foot-by-22-foot-by-9-inch Reynolds panel showcases one of three new exhibits in the $35 million tripling of the Virginia Marine Science Museum.
Using an oversized oven, Reynolds cast and thermoformed a 40-foot arc-shaped, 61/2-inch-thick acrylic panel for the 280,000-gallon shark display at the Albuquerque Biological Park's new $12 million aquarium. Van H. Gilbert Architect PC designed the aquarium. Exhibits are scheduled to open in October.
Reynolds also prefabricated and pre-assembled 120 pieces of 2-to-4-inch-thick Polycast Tech-nology Corp. acrylic panels to form a 40-foot-diameter sphere for the astrophysics Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, slated to begin operation in 1997. A neutrino is a subatomic particle that emanates from the sun.
Technicians are reassembling the pieces 11/4 miles underground in a northern Ontario cavern.
The sphere will hold 1,000 tons of heavy water, DÃ O, and be surrounded by 7,000 tons of ultrapure water, or HÃ O.
An array of photo-multiplier tubes around the sphere will try to detect a tiny flash of light generated by neutrino interaction with the heavy water. The results will help determine if a neutrino contains mass.
Foreign work on Reynolds' 1996 schedule include installations in China, Egypt, Peru, Italy, Norway, Taiwan and England. Reynolds installation consultant Don Hig-ginson of Poway, Calif., praises the Colorado firm's capability to form monolithic panels.
``Foreign matter is greater in laminated panels than in monolithic panels,'' he said. ``If you have many layers of a material being bonded together, there is a much greater chance of contamination.''
For sealing, Higginson uses structural silicone and, where appropriate, chemical bonding. An improper surface or incorrect material can cause problems.
``We have never had a failure of the silicone itself,'' he said.
Preparation, cleanliness and application lead to a sound installation of adhesives in environments that often contain saltwater and ultraviolet-ray exposure, he said. A worst case: failure of a sealing system requires draining the exhibit and removing animals, rocks and soil.
Japanese methods differ
Nippura builds acrylic panels in 2-inch-thick increments. Indi-vidual panels are computer-plan-ed, annealed and laminated to the required thicknesses at a plant in Takamatsu, Japan.
``We have laminated panels in service for 26 years,'' said Eileen Hanson, Nippura's U.S. representative in Mukilteo, Wash.
``A monolithic cast can have problems in uneven polymerization, particularly in greater thicknesses,'' she said. ``With laminated panels, our company is better able to consistently monitor and control quality. If we discover any problems, we are able to isolate and eliminate the specific laminate or panel layer. Incremental control is not possible in a monolithic process.''
``Nippura's chemical bonds are approximately 95 percent of the parent material strength and are virtually invisible,'' Hanson said. ``The bonds are stronger than silicone and eliminate visual barriers between panels.''
A recently completed Nippura installation at Expo '98 Oceanar-ium in Lisbon, Portugal, and an upcoming project at the Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands, account for about $7.5 million worth of acrylic, she said.
Nippura bonded five 13-inch-thick panels to create the 561/2by17-foot, 78,000-pound window at the Monterey (Calif.) Bay Aquar-ium's new Outer Bay exhibit. Nippura, established in 1969, entered the U.S. market in 1993.
Ryoko, at its plant in Ohtake, Japan, laminates layers of its trademark Shinkolite-A aquarium acrylic to achieve thick panels. Ryoko supplied panels to more than 70 projects in 20 countries, said Sunil Sarma, assistant manager in the chemical department of trading company Nissho Iwai American Corp. in Los Angeles. Ryoko panels were installed recently at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, an underwater exhibit at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and a tunnel at Pier 39 Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
Ryoko benefits from a close business relationship with its parent Mitsubishi Rayon, the largest maker of polymethyl methacrylate in Japan. Nissho Iwai American, a subsidiary of Japan-based Nissho Iwai Corp., distributes Ryoko's panels in North America.