Expancel microspheres from AkzoNobel can swell to as much as 60 times their original volume.
Mr. McGuire’s career advice to Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film classic The Graduate — “There’s a great future in plastics” — still rings true today, as breakthroughs such as Akzo Nobel NV’s (NYSE Euronext: AKZA) Expancel microspheres come to market. The number of applications for these small, gas-filled, plastic-like orbs — which, when heated, can expand to as much as 60 times their original volume with no reduction in strength — “is almost endless,” says Niklas Larsson, director of specialty products for the Pulp and Paper Chemicals division of AkzoNobel, the Amsterdam-based maker of specialty chemicals and coatings. “For instance, auto parts made of microspheres are lighter than plastic, meaning lower fuel consumption. You’re also replacing plastic material that typically has a fossil origin” — an environmental win-win.
Applications so far include medical prosthetics, footwear, synthetic wine corks and tennis balls. Expancel has also been used in children’s clay, high-tech sonar systems and flooring materials to help reduce the sound of footsteps. The product’s potential is so vast, Larsson says, that demand is up despite the sluggish economy. “Thanks to our broad range of applications, our business is growing,” he reports.