From wings to walls: conductive polymer project turns on a new era in heating
28 February 2017
Imagine wind turbine or aircraft wings that de-ice themselves in extreme conditions or floors and walls with invisible, built-in heating. Or even clothes that warm you up on the coldest of days.
This is the vision of French manufacturer STILZ Chimie, a subsidiary of independent materials research company RESCOLL. Backed by the EU as part of its programme to support innovation in SMEs, the team at STILZ Chimie, led by chemical engineer Magali Clavé-Henry and her colleagues, is working on new heating systems based on special polymers.
These special polymers conduct electricity so that when a voltage is applied, heat is generated. The unique advantage of these polymers is that they can be incorporated into paints or resins and made into ultra-flexible thin films. These flexible heating materials can be combined into all sorts of materials and products – from floor and wall construction materials to the blades of wind turbines or aircraft.
Clavé-Henry explains how, with support from the EU, RESCOLL is moving its conductive polymer technology from the lab into industrial-scale production at STILZ Chimie.
- What do you hope to achieve with the project?
‘We have developed a conductive polymer technology we call PANIPLAST. Our technology is about how to synthesise these conductive polymers and achieve the right conductivity level. The technology of synthesising these polymers is quite mature now, but we have improved it so that we can make 100% organic polymers, which are highly conductive, have better stability and flexibility, and are safe to use.
‘We can disperse the polymers in different matrices like resins, paints, inks, or plastics to make these materials conductive. In turn, these conductive materials can find use in a wide range of applications where lightweight conductivity is desirable.
‘Our current project is looking into the markets we can target, prioritising the most promising and identifying what resources would be needed to go into production at STILZ Chimie.’
- What issues do you hope to tackle with this technology?
‘We see the biggest potential for applications in conductive coatings and thin-films in which the PANIPLAST polymers act as a resistive layer emitting heat. These thin film heating materials can be integrated into other materials or structures to de-ice wind turbine blades, aircraft wings, or clothes, for instance, as well as for indoor, outdoor, under floor and wall heating.
‘We believe this approach has great potential for turbine blade de-icing because wind parks are often subject to icy conditions in winter and many are installed at altitudes where conditions are icy all year round. Similarly, aircraft wings are subject to sub-zero temperatures on every flight.
‘Icing on blades reduces the aerodynamic behaviour, can cause mechanical fatigue and security and safety issues for maintenance operators.’
- What have you achieved so far?
‘We’ve been working on a co-development programme with specialists from the wind energy sector and there is already a wind turbine in France fully equipped with our de-icing system. For the past year, we’ve seen increasing interest from the aerospace sector as well. We are now undertaking feasibility projects with several major players from this sector to see if our solution will work for them.
‘As well as de-icing, we are working with the construction sector on under floor and wall heating. Here the advantages are that our material is ultrathin and can be directly integrated into construction materials and is completely invisible. It is a way to add new functions to construction products.
‘One of the advantages of our products is that PANIPLAST polymers in their final, thin-film form are completely macroscopic and do not produce or release any nanoparticles during use or disposal.’
- What could be the impact of this technology?
‘For end users of this technology, in construction or renewables, it could bring competitiveness and increased turnover. For wind-farm operators, for instance, our technology could reduce downtime and production losses during icy weather conditions.
‘For aerospace, the technology could have an environmental impact by eliminating the need for de-icing chemicals, which are based on nasty chemicals known as glycols. In construction, by contrast, one-third of products did not exist three years ago and companies are constantly looking for innovation to stay ahead of the market.
‘And for users of heating systems based on our materials there would be increased comfort – and reduced cost because our systems are very low energy consuming.
We have also developed another application for the composites industry based on using conductive polymers to mould composite parts.
‘By making the mould conductive, composite structures can be painted on electrostatically – which saves on energy, raw materials and the emission of pollutants – something that is better for operators as well as the environment.’
- How did you become involved in this project?
‘RESCOLL started to work on conductive polymers in 2009, building on seminal work performed at the French Government-funded research organisation CEA. Since then, we have invested considerable R&D on improving the PANIPLAST technology and developing solutions for applications, thanks to the support of the Aquitaine region and bpifrance.
‘RESCOLL has been involved in European programmes for several years, but we came across the EU’s programme for SMEs when we were thinking about acquiring STILZ Chimie. We thought it would be the perfect tool for us to support the technology transfer we wanted to undertake.’
- What are the benefits of an EU-funded project?
‘The SME Instrument process really forces you to adopt a market vision. We spent a six-month period doing a thorough market study. We also undertook a lot of communication and having a prestigious ‘EU label’ really helped.
‘In terms of visibility and communications, it opens doors. It extends your network. And it also recognises your achievements, the high level of research potential that you have and gives you credibility when it comes to investors.
‘For me personally, the EU’s coaching scheme for SMEs was very helpful – it catalysed key discussions within our team. Although it was an intensive experience it was very interesting and we learned a lot. Even the R&D team was enthusiastic about it, although it was primarily business focused. It was new to them and they really got involved.
‘As well as researching and evaluating market opportunities, we have learned how to transform the results of research into innovation and a competitive advantage for the company. We have also gained experience in understanding users’ expectations and communicating our message to them.’
- What are the key ingredients for a successful project of this type?
‘Perseverance! You have to believe in the potential of your technology. Communication and involvement of all the key staff from different departments is important to make discussions happen.
‘In our case, even the proposal stage involved teamwork from the top management to the R&D team. We kept this momentum going with a continuous review process even though we were the only participant in the project. We still need to confront and process new ideas.’
- What advice would you give to someone setting out on the process?
‘My advice would be to go for it. I would definitely recommend taking part because you learn a lot from the process. Even if you are not funded, it forces you to ask: what is my strategy? Where do I want to go?
‘But you need to fit the profile that the programme is looking for by having a disruptive technology or high growth potential or global ambitions. And take all the support you can get from the coaching scheme and local representatives of the European Enterprise Network. Identify the main areas where you need assistance – it could be intellectual property, business strategy or planning. Every piece of advice is good.’
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