The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — just held Jan. 9-12 in Las Vegas is the world's top technology exhibition highlighting major new electrical and electronic developments. Continuous change is always the main feature of the electrical and electronics industries. Whether in the consumer electronics or telecommunications sector, companies must constantly evolve to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The electrical and electronic (E&E) market is the world's third-largest plastics market, after packaging and building/construction. Without plastics, most electronic products would not be practical or economical.

Thermoplastics, particularly engineering and high-performance plastics, dominate the plastics E&E market sector. Applications range from miniature connectors to housings for large electronic devices.

The various electronics sector manufacturers can choose from an enormous, versatile range of plastics to meet every requirement. Depending on the electronic application, plastics are chosen for their rigidity or flexibility, toughness/durability, resistance to low or high voltage and their electrical insulation or conductive qualities, etc.

Component miniaturization also increasingly relies on engineering plastics to provide tough, dimensionally-stable parts often with thin walls that can withstand both the stress of assembly and the strain of use.

Let's take a look at some recent plastics developments at CES 2018.

SOLO electric vehicle. (Image: Electra Meccanica)

New to CES 2018 was the three-wheel SOLO electric vehicle, designed and built in Vancouver, British Columbia. The car just recently completed a 3,500-mile, cross-continent trip to New York City.

The SOLO has a 100-mile range, an 85 mph top speed, can achieve 0-60 mph in 8 seconds, possesses a 54-horsepower electric motor, weighs 1,650 pounds total, has 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, and dimensionally measures 122 inches long, 53 inches wide and 52 inches high. Major body panels are made of aerospace-grade sheet molding compound (SMC) plastic composites, and the total SOLO vehicle purchase price averages $15,500.

Delving further from an industrial electronics plastics standpoint at the CES, Lanxess' thermoplastic polyester polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) based plastic compound Pocan AF4130 in joint work with the lighting company Hella has developed a housing material for a battery management unit (BMU) and two cell monitoring (CMU) units.

Pocan AF4130 is a blend of PBT and acrylonitrile styrene acrylate (ASA) containing 30 percent glass fibers and halogen-based flame retardants. Key advantages are extremely low warpage/shrinkage, in tandem with high flame retardance. Car/truck vehicle battery systems are the current market target.

Hella is manufacturing the BMU and CMU housing components for a German manufacturer of lithium-ion battery systems for Volkswagen compact motor vehicles. The housings have large, flat surfaces as well as complex geometries along the edges and on the inside.

They are injection-molded cost-effectively as single components. A key requirement is that the contact pins for the connectors must not bend when the housings are mounted against the printed circuit boards. The tolerances for the spacing between the connector mounts and the cutouts for the pins are extremely close.

The Pocan AF4130 blend is UL (Underwriters Lab) classified V-0 at 0.75 millimeters and is listed as UL 94 5VA (1.5 mm). It is being further developed for use in electrical components such as solar panel plugs and sockets.

Next at CES, highly conductive battery bipolar plate designs were discussed. Basically, bipolar technology eliminates the use of a top lead to connect the plates, thereby reducing weight and overall size.

Commercialization has had to overcome challenges ranging from corrosion to current leakage. Worldwide market demand for lead-acid batteries is projected to grow from $45 billion in 2017 to $60 billion by 2022.

Innovative bipolar plate development from Integral Technologies, Inc.'s subsidiary ElectriPlast Corporation has improved traditional lead acid battery manufacturing technology. Their highly conductive, corrosion-resistant plastic bipolar plate is being developed into a lightweight, moldable, cost-effective battery.

The ElectriPlast material enables plates to be molded into any 3-D shape or form. By eliminating the top lead, batteries are approximately 50 percent lighter in weight and 50 percent smaller in size. ElectriPlast bipolar plates allow multiple layers of grids, paste and separators to be replaced by a single layer of conductive material.

The technology also shortens the current path between positive and negative terminals, allowing more efficient energy output. Six to 12 plates can be stacked to replace 12 volt or 24 volt lead-acid batteries in cars and other applications.

Traditional monopolar battery plate design (left), bipolar plate design (center), molded bipolar plates (right). (Image: ElectriPlast)

Continuing, medical electronic devices — typically heavy plastics users are a major CES area of interest. Consumer electronics end-users have long sought biocompatible plastics for skin contact applications, to chemical resistant materials that won't degrade when exposed to certain cleaning solutions, to transparent grades that maximize light transmittance for translucent LED displays, and to plastics with recycled content.

This rapidly-developing need in the broader consumer electronics area is also driving plastics technology in the consumer medical electronics field.

Recently, specialty plastics materials supplier Trinseo's Emerge 7700 PC/ABS (polycarbonate/acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) blend was specified by Poland-based medical electronics company, Mo Fe Ma, for its new portable fetal monitor called ZuZaMED. The expecting pregnant mother can easily place the ZuZaMED device on her stomach area to monitor the health condition of the in-womb fetus, and it can be used without any time-length restriction.

Emerge 7700 meets technical requirements for the application, including not only good mechanical properties but also biocompatibility for extended skin contact, low density and UL V-0 rated flame retardancy. It can be cleaned with a 40 percent alcohol solution. It is based on Trinseo's mass polymerized ABS resin, resulting in a white base color plastic required by Mo Fe Ma to minimize device yellowing.

ZuZaMED portable fetal monitoring device. (Image: Trinseo/Mo Fe Ma)

Elsewhere at CES, a novel Nylon 6 product family, Durethan TC (thermally conductive) has been developed by Lanxess to meet the thermal management challenges of increasingly powerful small electronic devices such as LED bulb bases. The first grades in the family are easy-flow Nylon 6 variations, Durethan BTC65 H3.0 EF and Durethan BTC75 H3.0 EF.

Their high thermal conductivity is based on reinforcement with 65 percent and 75 percent of a special mineral filler. Both materials display a good balance between high thermal conductivity, outstanding mechanical properties and good processing behavior.

The two materials conduct heat as efficiently as traditional Nylon 66 compounds containing boron nitride or aluminum oxide as a thermally conductive filler. However, aluminum oxide systems have the disadvantage of being very abrasive, which quickly causes damage to an injection mold.

Compared to boron nitride systems, the new compounds are significantly less expensive and have better mechanical properties. Additionally, their thermal conductivity is not anisotropic or one-direction oriented, but is virtually the same in all cross and linear directions.

Thermal conductivity of the Nylon 6 with 65 percent mineral reinforcement is 1.0 Watt per meter Kelvin (W/mK), and the material with a 75 percent mineral content is 1.5 W/mK. The two products have good mechanical properties despite high filler content.

Compared to die-cast aluminum, housings can be fabricated from these thermoplastics much more cost-efficiently and yield more lightweight components. The new, thermally conductive Nylon 6 can be efficiently injection-molded in a wide processing window and a reliable process, despite their high mineral content.

Heat-conducting Nylon 6 LED bulb bases. (Image: Lanxess)

Finally, at CES, oil and gas electrical connector company Rampart Products has chosen Victrex Ltd.'s Victrex HT Polyaryletherketone (PAEK) in a first application of its type for a new high-pressure/high-temperature electrical connector for transmitting power and data during oil and gas drilling operations.

The new connector needed to be continuous use temperature rated above 200 degrees C and exhibit in use pressures at 1,380 bars, to guarantee continuous electrical connection while protecting expensive sensors and electronics. Additional connector part requirements covered compatibility with electronic industry-standard pin patterns, extended electronic connector-mating wear cycles, and ease of connector assembly.

Up to now, thermoset, glass-reinforced epoxy material systems are still being heavily used in this connector application. The chief shortcomings of the rigid epoxy systems are in use connector cracking and chipping requiring constant costly field replacement. The ultrahigh-performance thermoplastic Victrex HT PAEK connector replacement material has double the impact resistance of traditional thermoset epoxy connectors.

Multipin Victrex HT PAEK connectors. (Image: Rampart Products)