report Micro, Nano & Materials
Peter Imhof, Polycompound (Img: i-net)

Peter Imhof, Polycompound (Img: i-net)


«My experience with nanomaterials is welcomed in Bern»

The company Polycompound from Sissach specializes in the incorporation of nanoparticles in plastics. Each year it processes amongst other things more than 1000 kilograms of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), which are long cylindrical structures with a diameter of less than 10 nanometers. Safety in the processing of these tiny particles is extremely important, especially since the effects of CNTs in the human body have not yet been conclusively studied.

Peter Imhof, Sales Manager at Polycompound, has been working with nanomaterials himself for around 10 years. He is not only a regular guest in the i-net Technology Circle NanoSafety, but also serves as adviser to the Federal Offices for the Environment (FOEN) and Public Health (FOPH). In this interview, he explains what measures are needed when working with nanoparticles and what regulations still need to be defined more precisely.

How did Polycompound come to work with nanomaterials?
Peter Imhof: To some extent that has something to do with me. In 2004 I was working as Product-Manager with a well-known company trading in polymers, raw materials and fine chemicals in Basel, where I came into contact with nano products for the first time in the field of phyllosilicates. In 2008 I had the privilege of presenting the first version of the safety matrix for nanomaterials in Bern, where I was one of the first people from industry to offer practical experience. In 2009 I moved to Polycompound and remained true to nanotechnology. Besides phyllosilicates and CNTs, nanosilver was also a topic of interest. Other additives in the nano field, such as flame retardants, came along later.

What are carbon nanotubes actually used for?
CNTs can reinforce a material or increase its electrical conductivity. Soot is usually added to cables to make then conductive. But the soot also reduces their flexibility and makes the cables more brittle. When CNTs are added, the same conductivity can be achieved with a much lower concentration and without essentially altering the mechanical properties, making the cables more durable. CNTs are used in a variety of applications, especially when the product has to meet more stringent requirements without the positive properties of the basic material being lost. The problem is that additives with nanotubes are still very expensive. This is a psychological barrier – as are the safety issues that remain to be clarified and the uncertainty surrounding nanomaterials.

Facility MDK/E 200 of Polycompound (Img: Polycompound)

How provide for innovation?
Many of our projects are initiated by basic research. We cooperate closely with various universities, such as the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW), the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and the Institute of Materials Engineering and Plastics Processing (IWK) and often assist in the transition of research projects to commercial production. For carrying over the initial test results to production we have equipment that is suitable for further tests as well as small series with production of 10 to 20 kilograms per hour. But production equipment is also available that can produce up to 1400 kilograms per hour. As a result, innovative products can quickly find their way to the market. In addition, all our machines are in separate rooms with closed circuits, so that contamination can be prevented. This is very important with nanomaterials in particular.

What measures have to be taken to work with nanomaterials?
The technology is still developing, so the regulatory requirements still contain a lot of uncertainties. This makes day-to-day work with nanomaterials difficult. At Polycompound we are trying to guarantee safety as best we can. We have special filter equipment, the rooms where the CNTs are transferred and processed are hermetically sealed and our staff wear special full-protection overalls.

Have you had confirmation that your production is safe?
The standard measurement of so-called Threshold Limit Values with nanoparticles does not yield any satisfactory and conclusive results, because the results are influenced by the nano concentration in the environment. To be sure, we had our filters tested by electron scanning microscopy and the particles analysed and counted. The result showed that our safety system offers optimum protection. But since investigations using an electron scanning microscope are very time-consuming, my hope for the future lies with a kind of dosimeter that indicates immediately when the concentration of certain nanoparticles is too high.

What is the motivation behind your cooperation with the federal offices?
I would like to pass on the knowledge that we have as processers of nanoparticles. At Polycompound we process more than 1000 kilograms of CNTs a year. That corresponds to several truck loads. I want to highlight the current position of the industry, to draw attention to problems and to represent the interests of the industry. When the safety matrix was presented in Bern, for example, I pointed out that industrial partners need guidance on how to complete the complicated matrix. And a guide in three languages was actually produced – so we are being heard. Such working groups facilitate exchanges between different groups and encourages thinking about issues that do not necessarily concern us as service providers.

For example?
The way in which a plastic combined with nanoparticles is processed further. We produce compounds, and the manufacturer sells these as additives. The manufacturer, we as processors and the suppliers know that CNTs are a component of the plastic. But how does someone who has to polish a plastic plate know whether nanoparticles have been incorporated in the plastic? This issue has only been vaguely touched on, and the declaration is still unclear.

Interview: Ralf Dümpelmann and Nadine Nikulski, i-net

Polycompound modifies and refines plastics according to customer specifications, so that they possess certain properties. The company produces customized compounds – from the smallest quantity to several hundred tonnes. Since the company was founded in 1988, its capital has been its knowledge of processes and the development of the right technology for plastics processing. As a Swiss company in private ownership the company strives for a long-term and sustainable relationship with its customers and partners.

Polycompound is an independent contract compounder that produces on behalf of its international clientele in strict confidence. In the field of nanotechnology the company produces so-called additive master batches, in which the additives are bound in the plastic in high concentrations. It is only this step that allows the safe handling of nanomaterials by processors. These additives confer certain properties on materials, such as conductivity, flame retardation or greater resilience.

Federal office information on nanotechnology

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