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Plasma Surface Activation: Learn About What It Is and How It Works

Updated: Apr 8


Vacuum plasma surface activation is a cutting-edge technique that significantly improves the adhesion properties of various materials, paving the way for enhanced bonding, gluing, coating, and painting applications. This innovative process involves replacing surface polymer functional groups with different atoms, thereby increasing the surface energy through the utilization of vacuum plasma technology.


Plasma surface activation effects can last anywhere from a few minutes to several months, depending on the material and intended usage. Widely employed in industrial processes for surface functionalization, plasma activation offers a cost-effective, safe, and environmentally friendly alternative to conventional methods.


In this article, we will go through the ins and outs of vacuum plasma surface activation, exploring the process, its workings, and the different types of plasma. With this knowledge in hand, you can make an informed decision on whether this advanced technique is the right fit for your specific needs.


What is Plasma Activation?

Adhesive bonding with low-surface energy materials, such as polymers, can pose challenges in achieving high-strength bonds. Vacuum plasma surface treatment offers an effective solution by preparing the material's surface before adhesive bonding. This process not only removes organic contaminants but also enhances the bondability of the surface.


Vacuum plasma surface activation chemically prepares the topmost surface layer of the material by increasing its surface energy which will allow the adhesive to bond effectively even at the smallest scale. This technique stands out for its ability to achieve all necessary activation objectives in a single step, without the use of toxic chemicals.


It offers a simple, versatile, and environmentally friendly surface preparation method that consistently delivers reliable bonding results.


How Does Plasma Activation Work?

When a material surface is exposed to plasma, the plasma ions and radicals can react with the surface atoms of the materials. Chemical reactions are induced in the material surface, which modify the hydrophily of the surface functional groups and create free radicals.

The plasma also generates UV radiation, which further produces free radicals on the surface. These free radicals rapidly react with the material, forming stable covalent bonds with the material to be bonded.


Plasma surface activation works best for materials like plastics and rubber that are used in many different industries, including medical devices, consumer electronics and transistors, car parts, and even airplanes.


3 Types of Plasmas Used in Surface Activation

There are 3 basic types of plasma activation technologies. These differ by how the plasma is generated.


1. Piezoelectric direct discharge (PDD)

Piezoelectric direct discharge (PDD) plasma is a type of non-thermal plasma generated using piezoelectric materials and a gas at atmospheric pressure. Piezoelectric materials possess unique properties that allow them to generate an electric charge in response to mechanical stress or strain. PDD plasma is created by applying high-frequency electrical signals to piezoelectric materials, which in turn generate a high electric field that ionizes the surrounding gas and produces plasma.


The generation of PDD plasma does not require additional external electrodes, as the piezoelectric material itself acts as the electrode. This makes the PDD plasma generation process relatively simple and compact compared to other plasma generation methods.


2. Dielectric barrier discharge (DBD)

Dielectric Barrier Discharge (DBD) is a type of non-thermal plasma discharge that occurs between two electrodes, at least one of which is covered by a dielectric material, in a process gas at atmospheric pressure. The dielectric material acts as a barrier, preventing the formation of a continuous current arc between the electrodes, which in turn results in a series of micro-discharges or filaments.


DBD is generated by applying a high voltage across the electrodes, creating an electric field that ionizes the gas between them. The dielectric barrier helps to limit the current flow and maintain the non-thermal or cold plasma state. In this state, the gas temperature remains relatively low, while the electrons are highly energized.


3. Vacuum plasma activation

Vacuum plasma activation is a surface modification process that uses plasma in a vacuum environment to alter the surface properties of a material. The primary goal of this technique is to enhance the adhesion properties of materials, making them more receptive to bonding, coating, or printing processes.


The vacuum plasma activation process involves placing the material to be treated inside a vacuum chamber and evacuating the air. A suitable process gas is then introduced into the chamber, and an electrical discharge is used to generate plasma. The plasma consists of highly reactive ions, electrons, and radicals, which interact with the surface of the material, altering its chemical composition and creating a higher surface energy.


As a result, the treated surface becomes more adhesive and suitable for various applications, such as bonding, gluing, coating, and painting.


How Long Does Plasma Treatment Typically Work?

Plasma surface activation is a powerful method employed across various industries to improve the adhesion properties of materials and to clean or modify surfaces. The duration of plasma treatment effects varies depending on the industry, material, and the specific application.


Let's delve into the typical lifespan of plasma treatments in different sectors:


Medical devices

Plasma treatments are paramount in the medical field. They not only sterilize devices but also enhance their properties, ensuring they function optimally within the human body. Typically, when medical devices are treated using plasma, the effects can last for several months to years, depending on the specific device and its storage conditions.


For example, catheters treated with plasma exhibit improved biocompatibility, reducing the chances of patient complications. These enhanced properties can remain effective for the entire lifespan of the catheter, given it's stored appropriately.


Electronics

In the realm of electronics, plasma treatments are instrumental in ensuring circuit boards are free from contaminants and ready for subsequent processes. When used for cleaning or modification purposes, the effects of plasma treatments can last for the duration of the assembly process. It ensures that any subsequent layers of materials adhere well.


Consider a printed circuit board (PCB). After undergoing plasma treatment, it might be easier to solder components onto it, and this improved solderability will last until the board has been fully assembled and sealed.


Textiles and fabrics

Plasma treatments on textiles and fabrics can improve dye uptake, wettability, and even antimicrobial properties. For materials meant for wear and tear, such as sportswear or outdoor gear, the effects of plasma treatment can last anywhere from a few washes to the entire lifetime of the garment, contingent on the treatment parameters and subsequent care of the textile.


For instance, a hiking jacket treated with plasma might repel water more effectively. However, over time and with repeated washing, this effect may diminish.


Aerospace and automotive

Vehicles, be it cars or aircraft, face extreme conditions. From temperature fluctuations to exposure to various chemicals, the demand for durability is high. Plasma treatments in these industries can enhance paint adhesion, corrosion resistance, and even thermal insulation. Depending on the specific component and its exposure to external conditions, the effects of plasma treatment can last several years.


For instance, an aircraft's exterior parts, treated with plasma, may exhibit improved resistance to harsh weather conditions and potentially increase the lifespan of the paint job.


How to Prolong the Effects of Plasma Treatment

Plasma surface activation offers a myriad of benefits, from enhancing adhesion properties to cleaning surfaces at a microscopic level. However, like most treatments, the positive effects may diminish over time. So, how can industries and individuals maximize the longevity of these benefits?


Let's explore the methods:


Proper storage solutions

An efficient way to prolong the effects of plasma treatment is by ensuring that treated items are stored correctly. Proper storage can make a significant difference in preserving the modifications made during the plasma treatment.


For example, materials like polymers or metals that have been plasma-treated to enhance their adhesion properties might lose this enhancement if exposed to excessive moisture or high temperatures.


Tip: Keep treated items in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. If the item is sensitive to dust or contaminants, storing it in an airtight container or protective sleeve can be beneficial.


Periodic re-treatments

Over prolonged periods, the effects of plasma treatment can naturally decrease. To ensure materials or products maintain their enhanced properties, periodic re-treatments might be necessary.


The frequency of re-treatments largely depends on the material in question and its usage. For instance, a medical implant that needs to remain bio-compatible might require more frequent re-treatments than an automotive part designed for aesthetic appeal.


Tip: Depending on the industry and application, there are portable plasma treatment devices that can be used for on-site re-treatments, ensuring that the material or product remains in optimal condition without the need for extensive downtime.


Protective measures

Beyond storage and re-treatments, protective measures can be employed to shield the plasma-treated surface from external factors that might degrade the treatment effects.


One common approach is the application of protective coatings. These coatings can serve as a barrier against environmental factors, like UV radiation or moisture, ensuring the plasma treatment's effects remain unhampered.


For instance, a plasma-treated metal component meant for outdoor use can be further protected by applying a UV-resistant clear coat. This not only maintains the benefits of the plasma treatment but also adds an additional layer of protection against wear and tear.


Tip: Always choose coatings that are compatible with the treated material. It's beneficial to test a small area first before applying the protective layer to the entire surface.


Is Plasma Surface Activation Right For Your Needs?

Because there are so many different types and variables associated with Plasma Surface Activation, it is best to speak directly with a team of experts. Whether one is interested in plasma surface treatment, plasma bonding, plasma cleaning, or other techniques, SCI Plasma has the professional knowledge to deliver the best advice.


SCI Plasma has expertly written guides in addition to its plasma bonding equipment. With decades of combined experience, SCI Plasma is a global leader in this competitive field. They also offer the finest customer service for any needs within this scope.


Plasma surface activation is environmentally friendly and cost-effective. It is best used on plastics and rubber materials used in many industries, such as medical devices, consumer electronics, car parts, and airplanes. It is best to consult with a team of experts like SCI Plasma for advice on plasma surface treatment, bonding, and cleaning techniques.


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