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Categorising Surface Energy

So you know the surface energy of a material in dynes per centimeter… now what? The surface energy of materials can be classified into three groups: high, medium and low surface energy.

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High Surface Energy

  • Many metals and glass have high surface energies of 100s or 1000s of dynes/cm.

    Molecules on the surface are so strongly attracted to each other that they will very happily be attracted to liquid molecules as well. As a result, these materials are relatively easy to wet out and, in turn, to bond. High surface energy materials have surface energies on the order of 100s or 1000s of dynes/cm and include many metals and glass.


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Medium Surface Energy

  • Many engineered plastics and natural materials have surface energies up to about 300 dynes/cm.

    Everything is relative. Somewhere between perfectly wet-out films and perfectly spherical droplets, we define medium surface energy. These are materials typically 36 dynes/cm up to about 300 dynes/cm. Many engineered plastics have surface energies in this range, as do natural materials such as wood, stone or concrete.


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Low Surface Energy

  • Materials with a low surface energy (below 36 dynes/cm) are very difficult to bond.

    Molecules on the surface of low-surface-energy materials are quite happy the way they are. There is very little attraction to any molecule, especially adhesive molecules. Materials with a surface energy below 36 dynes/cm are considered low surface energy and are very difficult to bond. These include polyolefin plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene as well as “non-stick” surfaces such as polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE).


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Surface Energy of Different Materials

  • Surface energy is expressed in units of energy per area or “dynes”. 1 dyne/cm is equal to 1 mJ/m.

    Recall the material bonding categories and the range of surface energies for each (pictured right). For each of these categories we will explore surface energies for common materials types.

    (COMING SOON) DOWNLOAD SURFACE ENERGY CHART

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Plastics

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Compare the surface energies of different types of plastic.
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  • Low Surface Energy Plastics

    LSE Plastics are generally soft, low-density and have a low melting point. These low surface energy materials stick together and repel liquids, making them difficult to bond. 3M has designed adhesives and tapes that work, but there are far fewer options to choose from.

  • Engineered Plastics

    Engineered Plastics are very common in manufacturing: they’re low-cost, strong and sturdy, yet they’re also lightweight and easy to mold into complicated shapes to suit specific needs. Engineered Plastics have higher surface energies than LSE Plastics, so they’re easier for tapes and adhesives to wet out and bond.

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Traditional Materials

This is a broad and varied group: basically it includes lots of things that have higher surface energies than plastics but lower surface energies than metals. This category includes old technologies like glass, ceramics and concrete as well as natural materials like wood, leather and fabric. Traditional Materials are relatively easy to bond, but each one has its own considerations.

Learn more

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This chart shows the surface energy levels of traditional manufacturing materials.
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Metal

Metals are strong and perform well across a wide range of temperatures and environments. They have very high surface energies and they’re open to contact with liquids and thus very easy to wet out. Most adhesives and tapes will adhere to most metals, so any time you’re bonding metal you have a wide range of adhesive options.

Learn more

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This chart shows the surface energy levels of different types of metal.

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