As rivalries go that shared by acrylic and polycarbonate may not capture the imagination in the manner of a Borg-McEnroe but is nevertheless intriguing, particularly for those with a design eye.
Historically compared and contrasted the respective materials in truth share many a common trait. They are for example both plastics and clear plastics at that. Is it any wonder then that at first glance few can tell them apart?
Each is regularly deployed as a substitute for glass, while the pair are easily cut using traditional tools likes saws and routers – this despite being refreshingly resilient. Yes, like all great competitors there is much that bonds these old foes.
But what of their differences? Let’s start by analysing their make-up…
Acrylic is formed from monomer methyl methacrylate in either a powder or syrup form. This is heated into sheets or tubes with what is known as a polymerising catalyst such as peroxide.
As for polycarbonate – this is realised when phosgene is paired with biphenyl A. The hot plastic that emanates from that marriage is extruded through an orifice to make bars or pipes.
As highlighted above, both materials are clear in their appearance. If transparency is something you crave, it is worth noting that acrylic is a tad clearer than polycarbonate – delivering 92% light transmittance compared to 88%. Both however perform well in this regard.
That said they can be coloured to suit specific requirements. When it comes to colouration, acrylic offers far more in the way of choice. Indeed a greater variety of shades is found when dealing with this plastic. For its part polycarbonate is available in most standard-broad colours but fewer overall.
On this same theme, it is important to note acrylic keeps colour better. When exposed to the likes of UV rays, polycarbonate is known to turn a yellowish hue which is wholly unattractive.
Acrylic is without doubt the shinier of the pair, albeit rigid.
If on the lookout for a long-lasting material it is encouraging to learn both the subjects of this article are sturdy enough. Together they can withstand impacts that would otherwise shatter glass, hence their inclusion in the likes of aquariums (acrylic) and computers (polycarbonate).
Polycarbonate is actually the harder of the two – known to withstand 30x the impact of glass. Acrylic will fend off slightly less force, believed to repel somewhere between 10 and 24x the impact resistance of glass.
Primarily viewed as an alternative to cut-glass it is worth remembering that individually these plastics weight half its size yet prove far stronger, a fact not lost on designers.
Even so neither is fantastic when dealt scratches. Though acrylic can recover from such minor damage relatively simply and cheaply alike, polycarbonate is not easily fixed. Worse still, it cannot be polished like its counterpart. When it comes to the cleaning process then great care is required – with the use of rough sponges or scourers not advised.
Fear not however as the pair wash-up well if met with soap water. If looking to deploy glass cleaners or ammonia-based sprays, know that polycarbonate will better withstand those chemicals, so too gasoline and acids.
For some the benefits of both acrylic and polycarbonate are plentiful, meaning a decision on which to opt for comes down to sheer price and price alone. If outlay governs your thinking acrylic will invariably win out. On average this material is 2-3 times cheaper.
Of course plumping for one of acrylic or polycarbonate is all well and good but in doing so you want a guarantee your preference can be cut to size.
On the surface acrylic cuts easier as it offers less in the way of resistance to electric tools. That said, polycarbonate drills better and in an altogether safer fashion. Though acrylic can be drilled it tends to crack when focus turns to corners, undermining previous work.
Both substances are more flammable than gas. Heat bends acrylic rather easily but burns it just as readily. For that reason it should not be utilised in areas that contain any potential for flames.
By contrast polycarbonate can stay the course when things get hot – usable at temperatures of 240 degrees. Acrylic is best suited to an environment anywhere between 30 and 190 degrees.
Unlike acrylic polycarbonate can be cold formed and bent without the presence of heat. Such flexibility leads to its welcome production in sheets.
When it comes to where and when these materials are utilised both their versatility and effectiveness is apparent.
Polycarbonate will typically be found in more industrial applications. When made thick enough it can even turn bulletproof. Elsewhere it is not uncommon to notice its inclusion in CDs and DVDs, spectacle lenses for glasses and sunglasses, drinks bottles, instrument panels and the aforementioned computers.
Sport enthusiasts meanwhile are generally stunned to learn polycarbonate is the key ingredient for racing car windshields and hockey visors. This plastic is nothing if not versatile.
Not to be outdone acrylic is itself enlisted as a motorcycle helmet visor or the equivalent of. You will also find it contributing to helicopter and submarine windows, not to mention those seen in aquariums – keeping man from fish.
Interestingly, the material is also a key component of police car modification – this when change is necessary to combat a large scale incidents such as a riot.
In summary which of acrylic or polycarbonate offers better value depends largely on the type of application. Undeniable is the fact both have their merits and have conspired to lessen the appeal of glass quite substantially. Similar in many ways, they also possess individual properties worth assessing before falling down on any one side. Like all great rivalries however, their competition endures.