Thermoplastic elastomers (TPE), sometimes referred to as thermoplastic rubbers, are a class of copolymers or a physical mix of polymers (usually a plastic and a rubber) which consist of materials with both thermoplastic and elastomeric properties. While most elastomers are thermosets, thermoplastics are in contrast relatively easy to use in manufacturing, for example, by injection molding. Thermoplastic elastomers show both advantages typical of rubbery materials and plastic materials. The principal difference between thermoset elastomers and thermoplastic elastomers is the type of crosslinking bond in their structures. In fact, crosslinking is a critical structural factor which contributes to impart high elastic properties. The crosslink in thermoset polymers is a covalent bond created during the vulcanization process. On the other hand the crosslink in thermoplastic elastomer polymers is a weaker dipole or hydrogen bond or takes place in only in one of the phases of the material.
There are six generic classes of TPEs generally considered to exist commercially. They are styrenic block copolymers, polyolefin blends, elastomeric alloys, thermoplastic polyurethanes, thermoplastic copolyester and thermoplastic polyamides. Examples of TPE products that come from block copolymers group are Styroflex (BASF), Kraton (Shell chemicals), Pellethane (Dow chemical), Pebax, Arnitel (DSM), Hytrel (Du Pont) and more. While there are three main commercial products of elastomer alloy: Santoprene (Monsanto), Geolast (Monsanto) and Alcryn (Du Pont).
In order to qualify as a thermoplastic elastomer, a material must have these three essential characteristics:
- The ability to be stretched to moderate elongations and, upon the removal of stress, return to something close to its original shape.
- Processable as a melt at elevated temperature.
- Absence of significant creep.
TPE materials have the potential to be recyclable since they can be molded, extruded and reused like plastics, but they have typical elastic properties of rubbers which are not recyclable owing to their thermosetting characteristics. TPE also require little or no compounding, with no need to add reinforcing agents, stabilizers or cure systems. Hence, batch-to-batch variations in weighting and metering components are absent, leading to improved consistency in both raw materials and fabricated articles. TPEs can be easily colored by most types of dyes. Besides that, it consumes less energy and closer and more economical control of product quality is possible
The two most important manufacturing methods with TPEs are extrusion and injection molding. Compression molding is seldom, if ever, used. Fabrication via injection molding is extremely rapid and highly economical. Both the equipment and methods normally used for the extrusion or injection molding of a conventional thermoplastic are generally suitable for TPEs. TPEs can also be processed by blow molding, thermoforming and heat welding.