Black Specks, Identify and Correct

Black Specks, Identify and Correct

Black specks in tubing or pipe, espe­cially in light-colored or clear plastics— lead to scrap, unscheduled shutdowns, and unhappy customers.  Specks can also cause holes or post-process failures in tube or pipe as it continues on to final product and use.

There are only two possible sources for black specks in extruded products.  Either they were part of the incoming raw material, or you manu­factured them in your extrusion sys­tem by one of several mechanisms.

If specks appear in your product, first examine statistically representa­tive samples of the raw material closely to be sure it isn’t the source.  Raw mate­rial can also contain formulation defects known as “unmelts,” which char instead of melting, becoming a dark speck surrounded by a gel. Unmelts, or gels are usually small particles of high molecular weight polymer not absorbed in the homogeneous molten mass.  Contaminants in raw
material are uncom­mon these days, but cannot be overlooked as a possible source.

Specks or unmelts occur more often in off-spec or post-industrial recycled material. If you find contaminants in your raw material, talk to with your supplier about remedies and increase your QC testing of incoming raw material.

If your raw material tests clean, then you’re making specks somewhere in your extrusion process.  Small amounts of poly­mer are being overheated, exposed either to high temperatures for a short time or to moderately high tempera­tures for longer periods.

When an area of very high tem­perature occurs in the barrel, down­stream plumbing, or die, it’s typically caused by a problem in the temperature control sys­tem; a bad thermocouple, runaway heater band, or a relay stuck in the closed position. Any material passing through the affected zone is potentially vulnerable to degradation.

Small amounts of resin can hang up and be exposed to normal process temperatures for abnormally long peri­ods in a worn or pitted screw, barrel, or die, or in cracks in chrome plating.

This material de­grades over time, breaks loose with thermal cycling and the drag of surrounding polymer flow, and can make a multitude of black specks.  If you suspect an equipment prob­lem, work with your maintenance de­partment to identify and correct it. If you can eliminate con­trol failures and worn equipment as causing the conta­mination,
look next at system configu­ration, material characteristics, and process conditions.

Downstream plumbing

The screw and barrel seldom cause degradation, though vents or complex mixing or barrier sections may do so.  Degradation more often occurs downstream from the extruder; for example, in plumbing that forces abrupt changes in the polymer flow path or in components such as breaker plates, screen packs, static mixers, and melt pumps.  These can have potential degradation areas, for example, a taper into an adapter fitting that is too abrupt.

Complex dies for multi-layer or multi-lumen products can also be the source if they contain low-flow areas where polymer can stagnate and overheat. Your experience from past teardowns and inspec­tions is the best indicator of whether degradation is devel­oping in areas of slowed or stagnated flow. In tubing and pipe dies, it could be the point where each port is fed or where a splitter feeds a spiral.  Once identified, these areas should be given particu­lar attention in future cleanings. They may require local use of higher
temperatures plus chemical purging com­pounds.  A redesign of the components providing the degradation areas may be required.

 Heat sensitivity

Heat tolerance of the polymer is also part of the situation. Heat-sensitive materials like PVC, ABS, and EVOH, or engineering resins like acetals, PC, nylon, or polyesters are more likely to degrade than more heat-tolerant polyolefins. An extrusion system that processes
LDPE with no prob­lem might degrade heat-sensitive EVA in a matter of min­utes.  Make certain that residence times are not excessive and melt temperatures are below critical levels.

Also, consider throughput rate and shear sensitivity. Obviously, running too hot can lead to degradation. But on occasion, running too cold can, too. Forcing a cool mater­ial to flow can generate excessive shear energy and localized degradation in the screw’s flow channel.

Finally, consider the shutdown schedule and procedures.  Stoppages and shutdowns for adjustments, die changes, or maintenance often extend residence time and cause material degradation.  In a system operated five days a week, small amounts of residual material in the extrusion system acquire substantial heat his­tory as the machine slowly cools
and starts up again.  It is common for a system on five-day operation to begin producing black specks only a few weeks after a complete teardown and cleaning.

 When all else fails

In the real world, hardware design or operating conditions that are overstressing your material may not be immediately identifiable or correctable.  You may know that your material is suscepti­ble to degradation, but changing resin isn’t an option without customer approval.  Or you realize that week­end shutdowns are killing you, but you can’t justify going to 24/7 opera­tion. In such situations, purging compounds can play an important role in managing contamination.

When problems result from hard­ware configuration or condition, die geometry, known hang-up areas, or even slightly worn screws, periodic use of a purging compound as pre­ventive maintenance will attack degradation at an early stage and minimize troubles during startup.  But remember, purging won’t eliminate the root cause of the degradation, so if your system is spewing out black specks at an intolerable rate, that’s not the best time to try a purging com­pound.

If weekend shutdowns are the cause of contamination, use a high-performance
purging compound to remove heat-sensitive materials from the system Friday night, not after the fact on Monday, to avoid startup problems and unscheduled teardowns for cleaning.

Use the right kind of purging compound for your situation.  In general, mechanical purging compounds are best for color and material transitions in relatively small and simple systems. Chemical purging compounds are best for large or com­plex systems or for addressing problem contamination issues like black specks.

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