A Taiwanese firm with experience in foaming thermoplastic elastomers said it has developed technology to make plastic lumber from TPEs, and plans capital investments to try to penetrate that market.
Microcell Composite Co., a small firm whose previous claim to fame was that its technology was used by sporting goods maker Nike as part of a green campaign to replace PVC yoga mats with TPE, said it plans to spend at least US$1 million on new equipment to make TPE foamed lumber.
The company has a customer in Canada that wants to use its TPE lumber in things like outdoor furniture and walkways, and the firm sees broad potential for the application, said John Shih, president of the Tainan, Taiwan-based firm. Shih spoke during an interview at the Taipei Plas show in Taipei.
The company developed the foaming technology to make the lumber earlier this year, he said. Microcell formed in 1999 and has focused on making foamed TPE for applications including toys, floor tiles and bath mats.
Microcell has essentially developed a ``recipe'' for compounding TPE pellets to get the right viscosity and tensile strength for lumber applications, and then developed technology to foam the material in a calendar extrusion line, rather than the traditional process of directly using an extruder to make plastic lumber, Shih said.
He said the company sees potential for the TPE applications because of environmental pressure to replace PVC, particularly from governments in the European Union.
Shih said he considers TPE greener than PVC and other kinds of plastic because it is manufactured without toxic materials, is recyclable and easy to process. But he acknowledged that his technology still has to use virgin petrochemical polymers.
The company is trying to use recycled feedstock, but needs additional testing, he said. The firm also is testing the plastic lumber in more structurally demanding applications.
The company has two factories in Tainan, one for compounding and one for foaming, and plans to add the lumber foaming equipment at one of its factories or build a new facility. It expects to have the new equipment operating by the end of the year, Shih said.
The company has about 85 employees and annual sales of about US$10 million.
Shih said he started the company in 1999 after working as a researcher at the Taiwanese government-funded Industrial Technology Research Institute.
Microcell began as a research lab, but about five years ago caught the attention of Nike officials who were looking for PVC replacement materials for various applications, Shih said. The company has since become a sizable supplier of the yoga mats for Nike, he said.