Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PEEK Seals – Numerous Applications, Many Choices

As a polymer, PEEK is most often compared with PTFE. The two have multiple similarities including good temperature resistance, chemical inertness and dielectric strength. When it comes to pure physical strength however, PEEK moves ahead on two counts.
First – the absolute strength of the material is much higher. With a higher tensile strength and hardness, PEEK is preferred to PTFE in applications where dimensional stability over prolonged physical strain is required. Although PTFE does have fillers, such as glass and carbon, which allow for increased stiffness, it still does not compare with PEEK on this metric.
Second – PEEK has a lower specific gravity (1.35 against 2.25 for PTFE). As a result, in applications where the overall weight of the assembly needs to be minimized, PEEK emerges a winner.
One such application where PEEK is highly sought after is in the seals industry. Seals themselves include a huge range of polymers, elastomers and metals, each of which rely on the specific characteristics of the material being used to achieve effectiveness in its application.
Types of PEEK seals
Piston Ring Seals
Piston rings are used primarily to aid wear absorption on the outer diameter of the piston shaft. PEEK is hard enough to withstand the extensive wear induced within the piston, but not hard enough to damage the metal components themselves. The rings are usually machined from a PEEK bush and have different types of cuts, which aid in installation and performance.
Ball Valve Seats
Ball valve seats show a predominant preference for PTFE, as they require a soft material that yields easily to the shape of the ball valve. However, there are a significant number ofPEEK seats being used in high-performance valves, where both the PTFE and the metal are machined to ensure a proper fit. Typically, we see these being used in valves employed on oil-rigs or power plants, where the high temperatures indicate a requirement for a polymer slightly tougher than PTFE.
Rotary Shaft Seals
We have developed compounded grades of PTFE with PEEK to cater to the rotary shaft seals market. The combination of PTFE and PEEK is a powerful one. The PTFE provides a boost to the self-lubrication properties, while the PEEK adds strength. Although they work well together, specific applications do call for pure PEEK. The purpose is similar to that of the piston ring, except here the shaft moves radially. PEEK again serves the purpose of being able to withstand wear at high RPMs, while being soft enough not to damage the metal in the event of misalignment or seal failure.
Ball and Butterfly Valve Seats
A number of different materials are used in this application, including PTFE, Delrin and UHMWPE. PEEK finds acceptance specifically in applications with high pressures and temperatures. Butterfly valves are an integral part of any fluid regulatory system, including hydroelectric power plants, oil and gas refineries and shipping.
Manufacturing process
PEEK seals and seats are made primarily via machining. It is possible to injection mould the components directly, but this involves extensive tooling. Furthermore, the precision needed on the part’s dimensions would dictate the need for further machining. Hence, unless the volumes are vast, it is most likely machined from a bush.
The bush itself may be either extruded or compression moulded. Extrusion offers higher productivity and longer length parts, but is again dependent on the correct type of tooling being available. Compression moulding is cost effective and allows the dies to be modified easily, so that the moulded part is made with minimal excess material (a very key criterion when dealing with an expensive material like PEEK). The issue with compression moulding is that it is a slow process with very limited productivity.
So looking at the trade-off between productivity and tooling cost, an OEM can accordingly decide which method to adopt, depending on the volumes.
Variants in PEEK
While most specifications call for pure, virgin (unfilled) PEEK, there are requirements for filled variants also. Most commonly, PEEK is used with a 30% Glass or Carbon filler to aid properties such as creep, dimensional stability and flexural strength.
As mentioned above, PEEK also does well with PTFE. More specifically, compression moulding best-practices sometimes recommend the addition of 5% PTFE into the PEEKmould, as this allows for better self lubrication of the material, while letting it maintain its superior strength.
Another polymer well suited to blending with PEEK is Polyimide. Although the blend is not nearly as proven as the regular filled variants, initial studies show that the addition ofPolyimide allows PEEK to maintain its flexural modulus over a much high temperature range as against unfilled PEEK.
It is difficult to combine too many other polymers with PEEK, simply because the temperatures needed to process PEEK far exceed the melting points of most of these polymers.
A word on PEK
PEK or PAEK has recently emerged as a competitor to PEEK. Industry experts have observed that while PEK does match PEEK on most metrics, it’s long-term effectiveness in maintaining its properties is still being tested.
We recently received a failed seal from an OEM, asking us to analyse whether it was PEEK. After testing it in a lab, it was found that the part was made using PEK. The end-user claimed that the part had only survived a few months in his valve assembly, before failing. This may have been a one-off incident, or could also point to the improper processing of the PEK part. However, it is useful to keep in mind.
Conclusion
PEEK is well known as a versatile polymer. Seals and seats are one more application where this material finds application. The product, however, requires precise dimensional tolerances that not all processors are able to offer. In addition to this, the availability of variants both within PEEK and amongst competing polymers makes the choice of material an exercise that the OEM must take very seriously, before committing one way or another.