In testing facilities at the University of Northern Iowa, researchers cooled a plastic composite deck board to -30° F and discovered that it gained impact strength.
``It kind of stumped me,'' said Haig Vahradian, program coordinator for materials testing for the university's Recycling and Reuse Technology Transfer Center and the Recycle Iowa program. ``I wanted to redo the test to make sure it wasn't due to some other variable. I did repeat the tests and they still revealed additional strength at negative temperatures.''
The profile, a blend of 80 percent recycled plastic and 20 percent mineral fill, was created in a research lab in Waukon, Iowa, where a former general contractor and nine employees have established PEC Inc.
The profiles also have met or exceeded every test under the American Society for Testing and Materials that apply to wood, officials said, hailing the formulation as the next generation of composites.
``They're not just another fly-by-night, me-too company,'' said Darrold Schall, who is the owner of CinCo Plastic Machinery Sales Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., and who acted as an adviser to PEC. ``We've spent the last four years testing and doing the formulations. They wanted to get it right before they went out with it.''
By September PEC will open its first production facility on land adjacent to the research facility, with two lines and 20 employees. Next April the company plans to break ground on a third facility, which will host 10-14 lines, President Paul Schmitt said in a July 2 telephone interview.
Schmitt said PEC will produce all types of dimensional lumber, including structural members such as joists.
``No one else can do what we can do with lines and cooling,'' he said. ``We're able to take production to a completely different level, as far as speed and the amount of throughput.''
Schmidt would not disclose how many feet the company's lines can extrude per minute, but he is making sure the firm can do multiple die sets.
The company's current cooling line is only 30 feet, compared to an industry average of 80-120 feet.
``We do use standard extruders, but we have to make changes,'' Schmitt said. ``There are about 18 proprietary changes we'll make on just one line.''
NFM Welding Engineers Inc. of Massillon, Ohio, built the specialized research line.
``You've got a number of companies out there playing with it, but I haven't seen any with the strength tests,'' said Schall, a 26-year veteran of the plastics industry. ``This will perform in structural applications where plastics was not allowed before, such as stringers [or joists] for decks. In most states, they would require wood as a stringer on a deck because plastic is not strong enough.''
Schmitt would not disclose what plastics he uses or how much the company has invested in the technology. Mineral fillers such as fly ash allow for better coloring and longevity of color and will not rot or mold like wood, he said.
The company's 1-inch-by-6-inch board has been approved for structural use by the Minnesota Board of Engineers.
``If you get the engineering stamp in Minnesota, you're good anywhere,'' Schmitt said. ``The sky is the limit. We've just opened up the doors to a whole new science and there's not an engineer who knows anything about it. It's like opening a new book. The things that we're getting our plastics to do aren't supposed to happen.''
Schmitt plans to begin using the technology in other processes as well.
``I know we can do injection molding,'' he said. ``Wouldn't it be nice to produce a plastic pallet that could handle 2,000 pounds? I believe we can do it. And that would more than likely be an injection [or compression] molding process.''