Suppliers Challenge PVC Cables with Green Alternatives

Charles Murray

July 29, 2015

4 Min Read
Suppliers Challenge PVC Cables with Green Alternatives

Suppliers are chipping away at the dominance of the venerable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) electrical cable with rollouts of new environmentally safe, recyclable alternatives.

Targeted at applications ranging from automotive instrument panels to surgical tools to consumer electronics to automation systems, the new breed of cable is thinner, tougher, more flexible and, yes, greener. That’s why a few big manufacturers have started to move away from PVC and adopt the new technology, despite a price bump that can range from 10-20%.

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“We’re seeing a transition among certain companies – mostly industry leaders – that have started migrating away from PVCs,” noted Brian Hanlon, general manager of Hueson Corp., which makes a variety of PVC alternatives.

To be sure, it’s going slowly. Suppliers estimate that only about 5% of the market is now replacing PVC-based cables with alternatives in the US. But a 2011 list of OEMs involved in the PVC Alternatives Project included some of industry’s heaviest hitters -- Alcatel-Lucent, Dell, IBM, Lenovo, Cisco Systems, and Dow Chemical, among others.

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By most accounts, there’s a good reason for such participation. PVC plastics, used in the insulating jacket of cables, are said to be an environmental contaminant in virtually every phase of their lifetimes, from production to use to disposal. They degrade after their service lives, have been known to leach contaminants, can’t be easily recycled, and are a problem in fires.

“This is a material that’s been proven reliable for more than 50 years,” noted Kevin DePratter, director of research and development for Northwire, Inc., which makes a PVC alternative. “It’s going to be hard to replace it because of the cost factor, but it will eventually be used less and less.”

A growing number of material suppliers and cable manufacturers now offer PVC alternatives. Northwire, for example, markets a PVC-free, thermoplastic elastomer called ecoPOWER, as well as a PVC-free cable alternative called EnduroFLEX, which is available as a thermoplastic urethane or a thermoplastic elastomer. Both products can be employed in industrial automation, defense, aerospace, and automotive, among other applications. For the medical industry, Northwire also offers a phthalate-free replacement for silicone-jacketed cables, called BioCompatic. BioCompatic typically serves as a cable jacket and insulation assembly for applications that include diagnostic equipment, surgical tools, and leads of various types.

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Similarly, AlphaWire has introduced a family of products, known as EcoGen, which are based on a modified polyphenylene ether (mPPE) thermoplastic, which contains no phthalates, halogen, or heavy metals. The family has spawned several products, including EcoCable, a cable said to be 40% smaller and 44% lighter than standard 600 V continuous flex cables.

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One of the beauties of such products is their recyclability. “mPPE’s can be recycled in any standard recycling bin,” said David Trahan, business development manager for AlphaWire. “Whereas a PVC cable would have to go to a special area for recycling.”

Such products offer more than greenness, however. They incorporate mechanical advantages, such as toughness and flexibility, as well as temperature ranges of -40°C to +105°C. “The industry is looking to find replacements for PVCs,” Trahan adds. “That means you need a material that can meet the temperature ranges and flexibility requirements of PVCs.”

Hueson Corp. has also rolled out alternative products based on modified polyphenylene ether (mPPE) thermoplastics. Its mPPE-based product line incorporates multiple members of the Enviro-Wire family, including: a halogen-free version rated at 600 V and 105°C for appliances; an automotive version that’s 25% lighter than PVC-based cables; a multi-conductor version targeted at electrical equipment; an Enviro-Mini for internal use in electronic equipment; and an Enviro-Tuff Cable for CNC machines, production lines, and petrochemical applications.

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Suppliers say that one of the unexpected advantages of the PVC-free cabling is the size. The insulating properties, toughness, and flexibility of such materials enable users to cut cable diameter, often as much as 40%. “You can drastically reduce wall thickness,” said Hanlon of Hueson. “The cost is probably about 20% higher, but that has to do with the economies of scale of the market.”

Sale of such products is moving faster in Europe, suppliers say. But they expect US-based manufacturers to increasingly catch on. “PVC is still a mainstay,” said DePratter of NorthWire. “But as customers come to understand the mechanical attributes and their proven track record, they’ll start to open up to the alternatives.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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