The large family of epoxy resins represent some of the highest performance resins of those available at this time. Epoxies generally out-perform most other resin types in terms of mechanical properties and resistance to environmental degradation, which leads to their almost exclusive use in aircraft components. As a laminating resin their increased adhesive properties and resistance to water degradation make these resins ideal for use in applications such as boat building. Here epoxies are widely used as a primary construction material for high-performance boats or as a secondary application to sheath a hull or replace water-degraded polyester resins and gel coats.
The term 'epoxy' refers to a chemical group consisting of an oxygen atom bonded to two carbon atoms that are already bonded in some way. The simplest epoxy is a three-member ring structure known by the term 'alpha-epoxy' or '1,2-epoxy'. The idealised chemical structure is shown in the figure below and is the most easily identified characteristic of any more complex epoxy molecule.
Usually identifiable by their characteristic amber or brown colouring, epoxy resins have a number of useful properties. Both the liquid resin and the curing agents form low viscosity easily processed systems. Epoxy resins are easily and quickly cured at any temperature from 5°C to 150°C, depending on the choice of curing agent. One of the most advantageous properties of epoxies is their low shrinkage during cure which minimises fabric 'print-through' and internal stresses. High adhesive strength and high mechanical properties are also enhanced by high electrical insulation and good chemical resistance. Epoxies find uses as adhesives, caulking compounds, casting compounds, sealants, varnishes and paints, as well as laminating resins for a variety of industrial applications.
Epoxy resins are formed from a long chain molecular structure similar to vinylester with reactive sites at either end. In the epoxy resin, however, these reactive sites are formed by epoxy groups instead of ester groups. The absence of ester groups means that the epoxy resin has particularly good water resistance. The epoxy molecule also contains two ring groups at its centre which are able to absorb both mechanical and thermal stresses better than linear groups and therefore give the epoxy resin very good stiffness, toughness and heat resistant properties.
The figure below shows the idealised chemical structure of a typical epoxy. Note the absence of the ester groups within the molecular chain.
Epoxies differ from polyester resins in that they are cured by a 'hardener' rather than a catalyst. The hardener, often an amine, is used to cure the epoxy by an 'addition reaction' where both materials take place in the chemical reaction. The chemistry of this reaction means that there are usually two epoxy sites binding to each amine site. This forms a complex three-dimensional molecular structure.
Since the amine molecules 'co-react' with the epoxy molecules in a fixed ratio, it is essential that the correct mix ratio is obtained between resin and hardener to ensure that a complete reaction takes place. If amine and epoxy are not mixed in the correct ratios, unreacted resin or hardener will remain within the matrix which will affect the final properties after cure. To assist with the accurate mixing of the resin and hardener, manufacturers usually formulate the components to give a simple mix ratio which is easily achieved by measuring out by weight or volume.
Published courtesy of David Cripps, Gurit