What is InVento innovativeness about?
An interview with Filip Kondratowicz, PhD Eng., R&D Manager for Polystyrene Plastics, inventor of InVento material, research project manager.
1. When did the InVento Project start and what was it about?
The InVento Project was launched at the beginning of 2009. It included not only the creation of a new product called InVento, but also a complete, ecological and modern production process, which is today protected by patents. All this in order to meet the future demands expected of the market and to create competitive advantages.
2. What was the aim of the project?
The aim was to develop a production process for the “grey EPS”, which can be safely described as a second-generation grey EPS technology. The competitive advantage was provided by, among others, a new, geopolymer additive. It determines the properties of InVento and its ecological potential.
3. What were the most important assumptions for the development of this new technology?
The goal was to create a patent-independent product and process technology, to obtain production freedom, the so-called “freedom-to-operate” (FTO). We also wanted to significantly reduce the negative environmental impact of the EPS production process on the environment. This also pertains to further, related processing activities and operation processes. We are also on the right path to implement a solution that is an alternative to bromine flame retardants. A solution that is environmentally and human friendly, also with regard to the future EPS recycling process. This solution was made possible by using an innovative additive acting as a flame retardant for EPS, which, among other things, nucleates and blocks infra-red radiation. It is worth mentioning that the process has been designed in such a way that it is possible to use EPS as a raw material for the production of EPS regranulates in quantities exceeding the 50% content of the finished product. We wanted to be able to produce an EPS material that could ensure a very low thermal conductivity coefficient of approx. 30 mW/mK, even in the range of particularly low material densities <12 kg/m3. As a result, we can obtain EPS materials with Premium class heat conductivity materials and competitively low foaming and forming times.
4. How long did the work last, who was involved in it and what was its effect?
As I mentioned before, the InVento Project, originally named XEPS, has been carried out continuously since 2009. Initially without significant successes. 2014 was the turning point. We changed our approach to process design and used the geopolymer in the process of modification of carbon additives. A research team was created, led by me and consisting of specialists from the industry. Our goal was to develop a product recipe and the XEPS process, and finally also to develop a method for the production of geopolymer, acting as an athermal additive, and to design a system for its production.
The results of these efforts are the modern XEPS technological line, operational since 2018, and new EPS insulation materials with high development potential.
5. What difficulties did you encounter in the course of your research?
Quite naturally, we came across R&D problems and errors. In particular, between 2009 and 2014. The competition’s patent restrictions often pushed us to undertake and implement ideas whose effects were really diverse. For example, in one case, despite the acceptable characteristics of the obtained EPS, the cost of production proved to be too high. However, the applied process solution (EPS extrusion process design) turned out to be inappropriate, with no guarantee of ensuring the required production efficiency, i.e. without generating losses or waste. In another case, despite the potentially lower cost of production, the material properties did not provide a competitive advantage. But in fact, without making these mistakes, it would not have been possible to develop the implemented solution. It was an invaluable time during which we gained knowledge and the necessary experience.
Nevertheless, during the implementation of the new XEPS product there were some problems with scaling - from 100 kg to nearly 6,900 kg/h. I could, for example, enumerate the problems with the dispersion of additives, mixing the alloy with a porogenic agent, or stable granulation. Changes in the dosing system, raw material transport, auger and process management software configuration, as well as the introduction of recipe changes were required.
6. What achievements can we talk about today?
The greatest achievement is completing the assumed objectives. Today, we can boast of the innovative solutions that include:
- a modern technological line of EPS production by the extrusion method. Thanks to this, the process is carried out without waste – the resulting waste is returned to the process. The new extrusion technology ensures high flexibility in production due to the possibility of quick recipe change and the highest desired quality of the manufactured materials due to the excellent dispersion and distribution of additives;
- a manufacturing process that makes it possible to use recyclates from the processing of polystyrene secondary products as raw materials. Their share in the finished product, depending on the quality of the regranulates used, may significantly reduce the role of the GPPS polymer;
- a production process that gives the possibility of the perfect dispersion of additives, which contributes to a high stability and repeatability of insulating, mechanical and processing properties;
- the EPS material for the production of insulation panels with increased thermal insulation. This reduces heat losses and, consequently, end user greenhouse gas and dust emissions into the air;
- the EPS parameters allow material losses to be limited and the shortening of the processing time, thus reducing the costs of energy consumption in the production of insulation panels at processors;
- the elimination of the need to use halogen flame retardants, by replacing them with an innovative and ecological geopolymer additive, which combines the features of a flame retardant substance and athermal properties - hopefully, the implementation work related to this will be carried out this year. The basic product, InVento Optima, will continue to contain a polymeric flame retardant additive, as will InVento, a product based on graphite and silica;
- the production of a geopolymer additive, which is a unique composition of mineral and coal raw materials, produced by Synthos according to its own recipe. This ecological additive significantly increases the thermal insulation capacity of the EPS and lowers its production cost. As a mineral-carbon hybrid, it acts not only as an infra-red radiation blocking (dispersing) compound, but also, after additional modification, gains the function of a flame retardant, without the necessity to use bromine substances. In addition, the material will be more recycling-friendly. EPS containing the new additive in modified form can be reprocessed without a significant increase in the melt flow rate. This is due to the absence of bromine or other halogens, but also due to the lack of synergistic flame retardants, which reduce the average molecular weight of polystyrene during recycling.
7. What was the biggest challenge?
It was to find an answer to the question of whether, given the current state of the art and knowledge of EPS production, we are able to propose a new quality and the path leading to that. The answer to this question was not obvious and unambiguous. The formulation of a binding answer required hundreds of attempts and many sacrifices. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who contributed to the implementation of this project at every level.