The fundamentals of flame treatment for the surface activation of

Polymer xxx (2010) 1e15
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Feature Article
The fundamentals of flame treatment for the surface activation of polyolefin
polymers e A review
Stefano Farris a, *, Simone Pozzoli a, Paolo Biagioni b, Lamberto Duó b, Stefano Mancinelli c,
Luciano Piergiovanni a
DiSTAM, Department of Food Science and Microbiology, Packaging Laboratory, University of Milan, Via Celoria 2 e 20133 Milan, Italy
LNESS, Department of Physics, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza L. da Vinci 32 e 20133 Milan, Italy
esseCI srl Company, Via Flaminia Ternana n. 386 e 05035 Narni, Italy
a r t i c l e i n f o
a b s t r a c t
Article history:
Received 25 March 2010
Accepted 19 May 2010
Available online xxx
This paper aims to provide an exhaustive and comprehensive overview on flame treatment as a valuable
technique for improving the surface properties of polymers, especially polyolefins. It starts with a brief
historical excursus on the origin of flame treatment, and the second section deals with the major
fundamentals of flame chemistry, with a special focus on the combustion process and mechanism of
surface activation. The most important parameters influencing the extent of the oxidation reaction along
with relevant practical notes are discussed in the third section. The concluding section outlines how the
most significant features of flame treatment can be profitably used to improve the wettability and
adhesion properties of polyolefin surfaces, especially from the perspective of developing novel composite
solutions such as polyolefins/bio-based coating pairs intended for many different applications.
Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Polymer science and technology
Surface energy
1. Introduction
Surface properties play a pivotal role in defining the performance of materials. Among these properties, wettability and
adhesion are sought after in several industrial fields such as automotive, aerospace, building, engineering, biomedical, and biomaterials [1]. For this reason, they have been extensively studied by
different branches of science such as polymer chemistry, physics,
and rheology. Adhesion and wettability are of critical importance
for polymers intended for packaging applications, since they can
greatly affect relevant and practical attributes such as the printability of a film, the strength of a laminate, and the anti-fog property of boxes, as well as the processability, convertibility,
recyclability, and biodegradability of the final materials. Worldwide
attention has long been focused on those applications requiring the
deposition of a layer or coating (e.g., adhesives, paints, and
varnishes) onto a polymeric substrate, especially when the adhesion at their interfaces is difficult to accomplish due to the inherent
chemical surface differences of the two contacting polymers. As
a consequence, the establishment of both interatomic and intermolecular interactions governing the adhesion phenomenon at the
substrate/coating interface is totally frustrated [2]. To make these
surfaces prone to printing and coating processes, different
* Corresponding author. Tel.: þ39 0250316654; fax: þ39 0250316672.
E-mail address: [email protected] (S. Farris).
strategies have been developed including using an adhesion
promoter (e.g., chlorinated polyolefin, CPO) [3], blending ethylenepropylene rubber to form thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) [4], and
exploiting physical-chemical phenomena at the base of plasma [5],
corona [6], laser [7], and flame treatments [8]. Although all of them
have been suggested as suitable approaches for enhancing polymer
adhesion strength, which is the most effective and feasible one is
still the subject of debate [9]. However, it is generally agreed that
flame treatment, together with corona discharge, is the most
widely used for the surface activation of polyolefin substrates [10].
The development of flame treatment has proceeded hand in
hand with that of polyolefins [11]. After the early pioneer work of
W.H. Kreidl, a considerable drive towards industrial implementation arose after the discovery of isotactic polypropylene (PP) by
Giulio Natta in 1954. At that time, researchers belonging to the
Montecatini Company located in the chemical district of Terni
started working on MoplenÒ in an attempt to find a solution to the
high recalcitrance of such a polymer to printing and coating [12]. In
those same years, the electrical corona discharge process was being
set up by Kreidl’s assistant, Kritchever, with the same goal of
improving the surface properties of polyolefins. Thereafter, the use
of such a process grew tremendously and has become the primary
method of treating polymer films for two main reasons: firstly,
because of concerns about the safety of open flames in industrial
environments and secondly, as a consequence of the recognised
sensitivity of flame treatments to small changes in process
0032-3861/$ e see front matter Ó 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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conditions [13]. As a result, although originally developed to treat
films, up to the beginning of the new century flame treatment has
chiefly been used for cellulosic (paper and paperboard) or relatively
thick polyolefin materials (e.g., automobile body parts and blowmoulded bottles) under the common misconception that corona
treatment is more suitable for polyolefinic films, whereas flame
treatment is preferred for tridimensional symmetrical shapes.
Over the past two decades many remarkable innovations, which
will be discussed later in this review, have contributed to the renewed
interest in flame treatment, making it a recognised technique for
modifying film surfaces as well as tridimensional objects. However, to
fully exploit the potential of this technique, it seems of primary
importance to acquire a deep knowledge of the overall process. For
this purpose, this review has been conceived as firstly a collection of
the most relevant basic principles and key concepts of flame treatment, with special emphasis on the fundamental chemistry governing both the flame and surface activation phenomena. Secondly, this
paper aims to illustrate the main practical parameters to make the
process successful. The conclusion is dedicated to a brief discussion
on the future trends in this field, illustrating how flame treatment can
help in the design of new high performance packaging materials.
simultaneous transfer of two electrons (divalent reduction). Since
paired electrons are common in organic molecules, singlet oxygen
is much more reactive towards organic molecules than its triplet
counterpart. At this point, the so-called hydrogen abstraction from
the fuel to oxygen can take place and hydroperoxide ( OOH) and
hydroxyl ( OH) radicals are formed:
RH þ 1O2 / R þ OOH
RH þ 1O2 / RO þ OH
2.2. Chain branching
This step can be schematically represented by the following
mechanism, where M and M0 are the reactant molecules, R the
radical species, a a multiplicator factor and K2 the reaction rate:
R$ þ M / bR$ þ M0
Many different radical species (radical pool) are formed
primarily by a general oxyhydrogenation reaction pattern:
2. Flame chemistry
In 1848, Michael Faraday inaugurated the ‘Christmas Lectures’ at
the English Royal Institute with a talk entitled “The chemical history
of a candle”, starting with the following words: “There is no better,
there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of
natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of
a candle” [14]. Approximately 150 years later, worldwide scientists
can only agree with this leading opinion, since an apparently trivial
process indeed governs many modern human activities. In addition,
such a process paved the way for theoretical research topics that, in
most cases, found remarkable applications in many fields. One
example is the treatment of plastic objects in a flame, which makes
them suitable adherends. Combustion is a complex process involving
many chemical reactions between a fuel (generally a hydrocarbon)
and an oxidant (e.g., the oxygen in the air) with the production of
heat and (although not always) light in the form of a flame. Migration
of chemical species within the flame results in a subsonic wave
(40e45 cm s1 in air/hydrocarbon systems) supported by combustion [15]. Although a huge variety of chemical reactions take place
during combustion, leading to many active radical species, it is
generally recognised that the overall process can be summarised in
few main steps, as schematically displayed in Fig. 1.
2.1. Initiation
This first step is represented by the general following reaction,
where M is the reactant molecule, R the radical species and K1 the
reaction rate:
H þ O2 / O þ OH
O þ H2 / H þ OH
H2 þ OH / H2O þ H
O þ H2O / OH þ OH
Among them, Reaction (2a), which is promoted by H radicals
arising from the dissociation of hydrogen at temperatures above
400 C, seems to be the most important since it generates all the
successive reactions [(2b)e(2d)]. It has to be pointed out that, since
the rate of Reaction (2a) is smaller than the rate of the reaction
between a hydrocarbon and the hydrogen radical, the presence of the
hydrocarbon actually inhibits the formation of the radical pool [13].
2.3. Propagating step forming product
The highly reactive free radicals formed can freely interact with
the hydrocarbon through the previously mentioned hydrogen/
abstraction mechanism and according to the following general
mechanism, where M is the reactant molecule, R the radical
species, P the new formed product, and K3 the reaction rate:
R$ þ M / R$ þ P
Firstly, the lowest-energy configuration of the dioxygen molecule (O2), which is a stable, relatively unreactive diradical in
a triplet spin state, is forced into a spin-paired state, or singlet
oxygen (1O2). This is normally achieved by the absorption of sufficient energy supplied as heat (ignition).
The diradical form of oxygen is in a triplet ground state because
the electrons have parallel spins. If triplet oxygen absorbs sufficient
energy to reverse the spin of one of its unpaired electrons, it will
form the singlet state, in which the two electrons have opposite
spins. This activation overcomes the spin restriction, and singlet
oxygen can consequently participate in reactions involving the
The final result is the formation of new products as well as
additional radical species:
RH þ OH / R þ H2O
RH þ OOH / RO þ H2O
RH þ H / R þ H2
RH þ O / RO þ H
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S. Farris et al. / Polymer xxx (2010) 1e15
Fig. 1. Schematic overview of the combustion process.
Hydrogen, methyl, and ethyl radicals and small alkenes
(primarily ethene) can be produced from the fuel degradation
occurring during hydrogen abstraction. Subsequent thermal
decomposition can give rise to smaller alkyl radicals, small alkenes,
and alkynes (acetylene) by thermal decomposition [13].
In these final steps, other reactions take place, among which it is
worth mentioning the water formation by different pathways.
Water forms through the reaction:
2.4. Termination step forming product
The termination phase is basically made of two distinct
R$ þ M / P0
R$ / P00
In step (4), radicals (R ) react with other molecules (M) at
a specific rate (K4) to give new unreactive species (P0 ), whereas in
step (5) the radicals themselves (R ) evolve to new unreactive
species (P ) at a defined rate (K5).
The two main reactions involved in this final step are, respectively, CO formation and its oxidation to CO2. CO formation takes
place starting from all those small molecules originating from the
previous step. In particular, methyl and ethyl radicals and small
alkenes (e.g., ethene) are the most important intermediates leading
to the formation of carbon monoxide through an oxidative attack.
The oxidation of CO to CO2 is the concluding step of hydrocarbon
combustion, according to the main reaction:
CO þ OH / CO2 þ H
can be asserted that hydrocarbons actually inhibit the formation of
CO2. In other words, the rate of the oxidation of CO climbs
considerably as soon as both the original fuel and all hydrocarbon
intermediates have been consumed, since the hydroxyl radical
concentration rises dramatically [13].
Together with the reaction represented by Eq. (2a), the above
mechanism (Eq. (6)) plays a dominant role within the combustion
of hydrocarbons [16]. The main route to the carbon dioxide is the
oxidation of carbon monoxide by OH radicals, whereas the contribution by O atoms is considered negligible [16]. Analogously to the
rate of the reaction between the H radical and oxygen in a typical
oxyhydrogenation scheme (Eq. (2a)), OH radicals react more rapidly
with hydrocarbons than with CO to form CO2. As a consequence, it
RHx þ OH / RHx1 þ H2O
by the oxidation of formaldehyde (an intermediate of the
combustion process):
CH2O þ OH / CHO þ H2O
starting from hydrogen radicals formed by previous reactions:
H þ OH þ M / H2O þ M
and through a typical oxyhydrogenation pattern (e.g., Eq. (2c)).
3. Explosive behaviour and the ‘runaway reaction’
It is worth noting that, considering the sequence [(2)e(5)],
b > bcrit: ¼ 1 þ
k4 þ k5
the combustion system has reached the explosion condition. This
means that if the air/hydrocarbon mix is within its flammability
limits (i.e., it has a suitable composition) and within its explosive
conditions (i.e., within adequate pressure/temperature boundaries
for the same composition), the flame is generated and can spontaneously propagate. Of course, according to Equation (10), the higher
the rate of the chain branching step (K2) and the lower the rates of the
termination steps (K4 and K5), the higher the probability for the
explosion of the combustion system to occur. When so, Reactions
(2a)e(2d) continuously increase the number of reactive radicals,
allowing the exothermic condition to be approached by the
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combustion system. Since the rate of the above-reported reactions
(and thereby the rate of the heat released) increases exponentially
with temperature (according to the Arrhenius law), the fuel/oxidant
mixture becomes explosive. Therefore, Reactions (2a)e(2d) are
greatly important in the oxidation reaction mechanism of any
hydrocarbon because they allow the propagation of the flame. This
exothermic reaction is also called the ‘runaway reaction’, which
occurs when the reaction rate increases because of an increase in
temperature, causing a further increase in temperature and a further
increase in the reaction rate. Since direct combustion by atmospheric
oxygen in a flame is a reaction mediated by radical intermediates, the
conditions for radical production are guaranteed by thermal
runaway, where the heat generated by combustion is necessary to
maintain the high temperature for radical production. The ‘runaway
reaction’ is, therefore, the key condition for radical production.
4. Laminar flame profile
A laminar flame (which is ordinarily employed by flame
treaters) is defined as a mixture of a fuel and an oxidiser, thoroughly premixed before combustion. The term ‘premixed laminar
flame’ is interchangeable with the term ‘deflagration’ to indicate
the propagation of the combustion process accompanied by
a decrease in both density and pressure together with an increase
in velocity (contrary to the propagation known as ‘detonation’).
Within a laminar flame profile, three main zones can be observed
(Fig. 2), which correspond to specific reactions. As a consequence,
different thermal gradients and reactive species can be encountered. These zones are briefly described here.
4.1. Pre-reaction zone
This region, also called the ‘dark zone’, has a typical dark bluish
colour. It is the coldest region of a flame because even though some
of the hydrogen formed is oxidised to water the combustion
process has not yet reached the explosion condition, and thereby
the amount of net energy released is negligible. In this region, the
only abundant free radical is the hydrogen atom, which reacts
quickly with hydrocarbons and oxygen, thereby impeding the
formation of the radical pool. For this reason, this zone is also
known as the ‘reducing zone’. This is an ineffective and unimportant region for surface activation purposes, since it in no way
contributes to the oxidation of the plastic substrate.
4.2. Main reaction zone
Also called the ‘luminous zone’, the mixed reaction zone is
characterised by the highest temperature of the combustion system
(for propane-based mixtures the temperature reaches
1900e2000 C). In this zone, radical content increases dramatically
to the detriment of the reactant concentration. The high concentration of radical species makes this region strongly oxidising, in
contrast to the reducing zone mentioned above. Such an oxidising
region is valuable for making effective the flame treatment of polyolefins. The colour of this zone depends on the fuel/air ratio: a deep
bluish violet radiation, with the flame becoming almost transparent
if the quantity of gas is increasingly reduced, is produced when the
mixture is gas-lean (due to excited CH radicals); conversely, a green
radiation appears when the mixture is gas-rich (due to excited C2
molecules). When the gas in the mixture increases still further, the
radiation turns yellowish because of the carbon particles formed.
The observation of the colour of the flame is an empirical tool widely
used by the operators of flame treatment plants to keep the right
mixture composition throughout the process.
4.3. Post-combustion zone
This is the largest of the three regions found in a typical laminar
flame profile. The temperature here remains high due to the
exothermic oxidation reaction (partial or complete) of CO into CO2,
with a release of heat. Although intermediate species such as CH3,
C2H2, and CH2O are typical of the luminous region only, radicals such
as H , OH , and O can also be detected in the post-combustion zone
[17]. Generally speaking, the concentration of radicals in a laminar
flame profile accounts for approximately 103 relative to the reactants, whereas ion species (among which the H3Oþ is the most
abundant) are decidedly less (106 relative to the reactants). Normally, they lie slightly beyond the luminous portion of the flame [13].
The existence of a profile of compositional differences over
a laminar flame can be explained in terms of the convective flows of
unburned gases from the dark zone to the luminous zone and the
diffusion of radical species from the high temperature zone to the
pre-heating region, in the opposite direction to the convective flow.
In particular, the diffusion of radical species is dominated by
hydrogen atoms, which do not participate to the chain branching
step described by Equation (2a) because of the lower temperature
in the dark region. Instead, H atoms combine with oxygen radicals
in the pre-heating zone to yield a large amount of HOO radicals.
These then form hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which does not
dissociate because of the low temperatures in the dark zone. H2O2
is then conveyed to the luminous zone by convective flows, where
the temperature conditions make possible the formation of OH
radicals. This explains the high concentration of OH radicals relative
to O and H in the early part of the luminous zone and the very high
temperature reached there, with the OH radicals-forming reaction
highly exothermic (w85 kcal mol1). In addition, it explains why
the OH attack on the fuel is the primary route for fuel degradation.
Finally, it is worth noting that combustion processes are never
complete. In the combustion of hydrocarbons, both unburned carbon
and carbon compounds (such as CO and others) are always present. In
addition, when air is the oxidant, like in a typical flame treater plant,
some nitrogen can be oxidised to various nitrogen oxides (NOx) [18].
For example, Pijpers and co-workers observed a significant amount of
N at the surface of PP samples at air/propane ratios between 26 and 18
[8]. Although different mechanisms can lead to the formation of NOx
compounds, in commonly used burners the high temperature
oxidation of molecular N2 seems to be the preferred way to form NOx,
among which nitrogen monoxide (NO) is the most abundant. The
term ‘thermal NO’ is widely accepted to indicate the formation of NO
from the N2 present in the combustion air. This process requires very
high temperatures (w1500 C) to break the covalent triple bond in
the N2 molecule by the attack of the O radical produced during the
combustion process. The formation of NO is in an inverse proportion
to CHx intermediates and CO emissions when varying the air/fuel
ratio. In particular, NO formation is promoted by increased temperatures, residence times, and O2 concentrations. Therefore, controlling
NO formation during treatment operations can be easily achieved by
burning under lean conditions and flame quenching using
a secondary air stream. Besides NO, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a minor
product of the combustion process [19]. However, since the NO oxidises to NO2 in the atmosphere NO is a potential precursor of NO2.
5. Laminar flame speed and stability
As previously stated, in a combustion system the flame is
a subsonic wave characterised by a velocity called laminar flame
speed, which is defined as the velocity at which unburned gases
move throughout the combustion wave in the direction normal to
the wave surface [20]. Different theories have been developed over
time to provide an insightful description and quantification of flame
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Fig. 2. Main zones in a laminar flame profile.
speed. Some of them (e.g., the TanfordePease theory [21]) are based
on the diffusion of the huge variety of chemical species produced
during combustion throughout the front of the flame. Accordingly,
such diffusion depends on the species’ molecular weights, meaning
that low mass species (H, H2, O, and OH) will diffuse more rapidly
than the heavier ones. In particular, besides its dominant role in
Reaction (2a), hydrogen atom diffusion is especially important since
its high diffusion rate is responsible for the main phenomena connected with laminar flames [16]. Other theories, generally called
‘thermic’, are instead based on the diffusion of heat rather than
chemical entities. Among them, the theories of ZeldovicheFrankKamenetskii [22], Semenov [23,24], and MallardeLe Chatelier [25]
deserve to be mentioned because they similarly contribute to the
chemical kinetic modelling of hydrocarbon combustion.
A generalisation arising from the combination of these theories
has been suggested as the most appropriate approach to model
laminar burning velocity, since it makes possible fixing the most
important practical parameters in laminar flame propagation, which
are otherwise difficult to interpret in more complex analyses [20].
Accordingly, it is assumed that there are two main mechanisms governing flame propagation e the convection of heat and the diffusion of
chemical species e in a back-and-forward modality, namely from the
combustion zone to the zone of unburned gas and vice versa. Thus, the
flame can be seen as an array of adjacent waves formed by unburned
gas at always higher temperatures until the ignition of the gas is
reached. For the assumption that the premixed combustion is onedimensional and steady (contrary to turbulent, non-premixed
flames), the temperature profile along a flame can be schematically
split into three different regions, as qualitatively depicted in Fig. 3,
where the enthalpy of formation diagram is also reported.
In the first zone, the initial temperature (T0) rises exponentially,
whereas the enthalpy of formation ðh0i Þ remains at the same values
of the starting mix. This means that in this first region the
combustion conditions have not yet been reached. Heat-releasing
reactions of low entities can anyhow occur, such as oxygen attacks
on the hydrocarbon, hydrogen abstraction onto the hydrocarbon
backbone (due to radicals diffusing from the main reaction zone),
and scission/condensation reactions of the fuel. In this first zone,
therefore, the temperature is controlled by both diffusion and
convection. The boundary between zone I and zone II is the point
where the ignition takes place. At this point, the temperature
registered is called the ‘mixture ignition temperature’ (Ti). In the
second zone, temperature and enthalpy behave similarly, i.e., both
increase linearly within a very narrow spatial range. It is assumed
that in this zone the convection and generation of new species are
the most important reactions, with the diffusion contribution
negligible. The boundary between zone I and zone II is called the
‘flame temperature’ (Tf), i.e., the temperature of burning. Finally, in
the third region both the temperature and enthalpy increase slowly
because of the almost total absence of radicals. In this last step,
carbon monoxide is oxidised to carbon dioxide and radical species
combine into more stable molecules. Finally, the system reaches the
so-called adiabatic temperature (Tad), i.e., the temperature at which
the heat release to the surroundings stops.
The theoretical treatment for the computation of the flame speed
starts with the assumption that within zone I the heat coming from
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which assumes the total mass per unit area entering the reaction
zone is equal to the mass consumed in that zone for the steady flow
problem being considered. In Equation (15), u is the reaction rate in
terms of concentration (g cm3) per unit time. Equation (14) can,
therefore, be rewritten as:
SL ¼
h0 i
a m2 s1
Distance (mm)
Fig. 3. Spatial evolution of temperature and enthalpy of formation in a premixed
laminar flame.
zone II by convection equals the heat required to raise the temperature of the unburned gases to the ignition temperature (Ti). Secondly,
it is assumed that the increase in temperature between adjacent gas
layers is constant. In other words, this means that the slope of the
temperature curve is linear, and thereby can be approximated by the
expression [(Tf e Ti)/d], where d is the thickness of the reaction zone.
From the enthalpy balance the following equation can be obtained:
mcp ¼ l
Tf Ti
where l is the thermal conductivity, m is the mass rate of the
unburned gas mixture into the combustion wave, and A is the crosssectional area assumed as unity [20]. According to the one-dimensional feature of the problem, the mass rate m can be expressed as:
m ¼ rAu ¼ rASL ;
where r is the unburned gas density, u is the velocity of the
unburned gases, and SL is the symbol for laminar flame velocity. As
unburned gases enter normal to the wave, by definition it can be
written SL ¼ u. Therefore, Equation (11) becomes:
rSL cp ðTi T0 Þ ¼ l Tf Ti
Thus the equation for the computation of the flame speed can be
easily inferred:
SL ¼
l Tf Ti 1
rcp Ti T0 d
where cp is the specific heat capacity of the fuel. From Equation (14)
it is possible to observe the direct relationship between flame
speed (SL) and flame temperature (Tf), i.e., the higher the flame
speed, the higher the flame temperature. It allows us to talk about
flame temperature and flame speed interchangeably. Unfortunately, in the above equation, the term d (the reaction zone thickness) is unknown; nevertheless, it can be related to flame speed by
the following expression:
ru ¼ rSL ¼ ud;
W m
rcp kg m3 J kg1 K1
w a
where r is the unburned gas density and a is the thermal diffusivity.
More specifically:
l Tf Ti u
rcp Ti T0 r
The denominator in Equation (17) is known as the volumetric
heat capacity (J m3 K1). Thermal diffusivity can ultimately be
defined as the ratio of thermal conductivity to volumetric heat
capacity. In practice, thermal diffusivity is a measure of the ability of
a given substance (or a mixture, as in the case of a flame) to rapidly
adjust its temperature to that of the surroundings. Since the mass of
reacting fuel mixture consumed by the laminar flame is given by:
rSL w
combining Equations (15) and (18) yields the following expression:
From Equation (19) the average thickness of the luminous zone
for a laminar flame can easily be drawn. Since, for hydrocarbon
flames, the value of a (at a mean temperature of 1300 K) and SL can
realistically be approximated to 5 cm2 s1 and 35e40 cm s1,
respectively, d assumes values close to 1.0e1.5 mm. As will be
discussed later, this aspect has a valuable practical consequence to
fully exploiting the benefit of a flame treatment during the surface
activation of polyolefin substrates. Equation (19) also highlights the
inverse proportion between the thickness of the luminous zone and
flame speed. Thus, flame speed (i.e., flame temperature) should
always be adjusted to a certain value of d to treat the samples in
a feasible fashion. This can also be achieved by setting the value of
thermal diffusivity a, since increasing thermal diffusivity leads to
an increase in flame speed, as inferred from Equation (16). Therefore, for high values of a the quality of the combustion system will
be enhanced due to an increase in flame temperature, which
corresponds to an increase in flame treatment yield. An adequate
value of a can be achieved by reducing the volumetric heat capacity
of the mixture (i.e., the denominator of Equation (17)), which can be
obtained by decreasing the specific heat capacity of the fuel (cp). To
do so, common practice is to replace nitrogen in the fuel mixture
with other lower cp diluents such as argon or helium. It has been
reported that when helium is added to a stoichiometric methane/
air mixture, the flame speed is roughly threefold higher than using
nitrogen (w125 cm s1 vs. w40 cm s1) [26e28].
Another aspect that should be pointed out is the effect of
pressure on the flame speed of a stoichiometric air/gas mixture. The
pressure dependence of flame speed is described by the following
equation [20]:
SL w pðn2Þ
where n is the overall order of the reaction. Therefore, for a given
second order reaction, flame speed seems to be independent of
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pressure. However, by contrast, hydrocarbon/air reactions are
rarely second order. Indeed, experimental data collected by several
investigators suggest that the order of a general combustion
process mostly falls around 1.75 [29]. This is why a reduction in
flame speed is encountered with increasing pressure. A deeper
comprehension of this phenomenon can be achieved by looking at
the most important oxyhydrogenation reaction governing the
formation of the radical pool, i.e.: refer reaction (2a)
Any reaction that inhibits the formation of H atoms or competes
with the above mechanism will hinder the oxidation process, and
thereby the combustion rate. For instance, the reaction:
H þ O2 þ M / OOH þ M
clearly competes with Reaction (2a). Moreover, since it is a third
order reaction, it is much more pressure-dependent than Reaction
(2a). The ultimate relevant consequence is that when increasing
pressure, Reaction (21) tends to slow down the overall combustion
process and, thus, flame speed. Results from analytical calculations
of flame speeds under different temperature/pressure conditions
with detailed kinetic aspects can be found in the literature [30e33].
Moreover, it has to be mentioned that the decrease in SL with
increasing pressure becomes more pronounced for pressures above
atmospheric conditions (1e5 atm). This is because, contrary to
what happens at high pressures, below 1 atm Reaction (21) does
not compete with Reaction (2a), and any decrease owing to Reaction (21) is balanced by a rise in temperature due to chain
branching step reactions such as (2a).
At the end of this section, a final remark deserves to be stressed as
far as laminar flame propagation is concerned. It is nowadays
accepted that although diffusion phenomena dominate in initially
unmixed fuel/oxidiser systems, reaction rate mechanisms prevail in
premixed homogeneous mixtures. It is worth emphasising that
flame propagation is mostly because of the diffusion of heat and
mass, i.e., it is made possible by a diffusion mechanism predominantly. The role of the reaction rate is instead intimately related to the
thermal profile of the laminar flame, since it governs the thickness of
the reaction zone and temperature gradient. In other words,
although the strong effect of the temperature is undisputable, flame
propagation has to be primarily attributed to the diffusion of heat and
mass. It is definitively expressed by the following expression:
SL wðaRRÞ1=2
This states that the propagation rate is proportional to the
square root of the diffusivity and the reaction rate [20].
6. Flame treatment of polyolefins
The term polyolefin encompasses all those polymers produced
by an olefin as a starting monomer, whose general formula is CnH2n.
Most common polyolefins in the packaging field are polyethylene
(PE) and PP. Although they have different specific properties, it is
recognised that both polymers are inherently hydrophobic, which
is in turn responsible for their typical poor wettability, especially to
waterborne systems. For this reason, polyolefins generally need to
be surface-activated before the deposition of inks, paints, adhesives, metals, and coatings. Flame treatment is a valuable technique
to improve the surface energy of polyolefins, although it has been
exploited to a minor extent with respect to corona treatment so far.
However, because of improvements in safety conditions as well as
in some technical aspects, it is receiving renewed attention, especially by those sectors (e.g., packaging) that historically lagged
behind in the exploitation of the technique.
It has been reported that the surface activation of polyolefins by
flame treatment is based on the free radical degradation
mechanism, which occurs at the tertiary carbon of the PP chain and
according to a random attack in the case of PE [34]. Two main steps
are involved in the oxidation process of PP: 1) the breakage of the
CeH links along the polymer surface by the high temperature
generated by the combustion process (w1700e1900 C); and 2) the
insertion of oxygen-based groups corresponding with the broken
links, leading to newly available hydrophilic sites for the interaction
between coating and substrate. In particular, the oxidation of
methyl groups (eCH3) into eCH2OH groups following treatment
has been judged the most relevant surface chemistry change
affecting both the wettability and adhesion properties of polyolefin
substrates [35]. The generally accepted scheme is reported below:
RH/R$ þH
R$ þ O2 /ROO$ /ROOH/oxidised products
It seems that the oxidation process is principally mediated by
the OH radicals in the flame. To elucidate the chemical changes
onto the polyolefins’ surface following flame treatment, several
techniques have been used. In particular, X-ray photoelectron
spectroscopy, also called ESCA (electron spectroscopy for chemical
analysis), and static secondary ion mass spectroscopy (SSIMS) have
confirmed an increased level of oxidation, as demonstrated by new
functionalities formed on the polyolefins’ surface, such as hydroxyl,
carbonyl, and carboxyl groups [35e37]. However, it has been
ascertained that, working conditions being equal, more oxygen is
incorporated onto PE films than PP films after flame treatment. In
addition, it has been proven that the majority of the oxygen added
to PP by the flame is in the form of hydroxyl species, which account
for approximately 20e30% [38]. Nitrogen fixation has also been
detected as a consequence of treatment, although it seems to occur
on PE samples rather than PP. Nevertheless, the fixation of nitrogen
is quantitatively less important than oxygen fixation, as revealed by
ESCA measurements (N/C atomic ratios < 0.03; O/C atomic
ratios > 0.1e0.2) [39]. The mechanism responsible for the modification of the PP surface caused by the hydrocarbon flame has been
brilliantly elucidated by Strobel and co-workers [13]. Arising from
their work, it seems that the polymer radical formation occurs
primarily by hydrogen abstraction because of the free radicals in
the flame, such as O atoms, H atoms, and OH radicals, according to
the reactions (3a) and (3c) and following reaction [25]:
RH þ O/R$ þ OH
where R is an alkyl radical. Not only can the radical species in the
flame provoke polymer radical formation, but also so can the
thermal effect according to the mechanism:
RH/R$ þ H
Based on the results obtained using a combustion mode [40],
and considering that the reactivity of the H atom for hydrogen
abstraction is three to five orders of magnitude inferior than the
reactivity of O and OH [41], the authors concluded that, at a specific
equivalence ratio of 0.93, OH radicals, O atoms, and heat are the
driving forces for polymer radical formation. Most alkyl radicals
formed during the previous steps (Eqs. (25) and (26)) react with
oxygen atoms, generating polymer alkoxy radicals [42]:
R$ þ O/RO$
It is well established as such polymer alkoxy radicals (RO ) are the
main species involved in the chain backbone scission of PP during
oxidation through the well-known b-scission reaction (Fig. 4).
Surface oxidation can also take place by additional routes;
however, these tend to be less important than the aforementioned
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direct reaction with atomic oxygen. For example, the alkyl radicals (R )
can be attacked by molecular oxygen (O2), yielding peroxy polymer
radicals (ROO ), which in turn can abstract hydrogen from other
polymer chains to produce polymer hydroxyperoxides (ROOH). All of
these intermediates (alkoxy, peroxy, and hydroperoxy) can originate
a large variety of oxidised species reacting with atomic oxygen, OH
radicals, or even through cross-reaction with intramolecular polymer
radicals [41]. Arising from these different reaction mechanisms,
a wide range of new chemical groups can be inserted onto the polyolefin backbone. In particular, the formation of hydroxyl, carboxyl,
and carbonyl groups is the most relevant concerning the increase in
the wettability ad adhesion properties.
Finally, it is worth stressing the heterogeneity of oxidation on the
polyolefin surface. This has been attributed to the different physical
domains in a typical semi-crystalline polymer such as PP. More
specifically, it seems that the regions most susceptible to treatment
are those amorphous rather than crystalline. This fact would justify
the scarce homogeneity in the extent of the oxidation, which is the
basis of the hysteresis phenomenon that can be observed during
contact angle measurements on flame-treated PP films.
7. Flame treatment equipment
Although conceptually similar, flame treaters used in packaging
industries for polyolefin surfaces show obvious differences
depending on whether the sample to be treated has a twodimensional or three-dimensional geometry. In both cases, three
main components can be recognised. For 3D objects, the plant
typically consists of (Fig. 5a):
(3) a nip roll, which is usually rubber-coated. Its function is to exert
a certain pressure on the film to ensure the necessary contact
between the web and the cooled roll. This prevents the formation of bubbles and/or blisters, which might otherwise impede
the right thermal exchange between the web and the treater roll.
Certainly, the core of a typical flaming system is the burner.
Nowadays, burners are complex parts affecting strongly the
outcome of the whole process. Despite the wide range of burners
available on the market, a common feature is the system that
delivers the gas/air mixture to the burner nozzle (head) by exploiting the still valid principles developed by Venturi and Bunsen. Such
a system, generally known as Venturi mixer, is located a few metres
upstream of the burner. Burners fall into two main groups. Atmospheric burners are so called because part of the air used to generate
the premixed fuel/air laminar flame is from the surrounding atmosphere, and is thereby at atmospheric pressure. This is because the
gas entering the orifice at the base of the mixing tube is at low
pressure (only a few inches of water column), providing only
approximately 50% of the required air for the combustion. Consequently, the remainder is drawn from the environment around the
nozzle, where the free air is usually conveyed by openings near the
burner. An example of atmospheric air is the Bunsen burner.
Contrary to atmospheric burners, power burners provide a powerful
(1) a conveyor belt, which allows a continuous loop of material, i.e.,
the polyolefin objects, which are normally mounted on heatresistant holders;
(2) a cleaning device, such as a stream of compressed air or
a brush-like system. This is normally placed a few centimetres
in front of the burners to assure the removal of all small
particles (e.g., dust) that might negatively affect successful
flame treatment; and
(3) a burner, i.e., the basic part of the equipment that produces the
oxidising flame.
A typical plant for the flame treatment of polyolefin flexible
films (Fig. 5b) is instead conceived as follows:
(1) a burner, which should produce a suitable flame for treating
the surface of the web;
(2) a treater roll, which is normally water-cooled. This enables the
rewinding of the treated film and prevents any unwanted
damage due to overheating; and
Fig. 4. Schematic representation of a b-scission reaction on a polyolefin backbone.
Fig. 5. Schematic representation of a flame treatment station for polyolefin a) tridimensional objects and b) flexible films.
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S. Farris et al. / Polymer xxx (2010) 1e15
source of combustion air, making it possible to achieve higher
energy output compared with atmospheric burners.
In an attempt to fulfil market requirements, different burners
have been designed and developed over time, and a large variety of
configurations are currently available. Gun-type nozzles were
especially developed for the flame treatment of three-dimensional
objects, where part of the gas/air mixture is deviated into small
holes at a speed that is gradually reduced until continuous ignition
is provided to the main gas/air flux coming out of the central orifice.
This makes it possible to increase the velocity of the laminar flame
out of the head of the burner, thereby achieving the targeted heat
output. The burners used for flaming flexible films, e.g., polyolefins
for the packaging industry, are based on a similar principle. In this
case, the need to spread the flame on a wider front (i.e., equal to the
width of the roll) led to developing pipe-like nozzles with a long
array of drilled holes emitting the flame. On each side of this main
row of drilled holes are smaller orifices, above which deflectors
control the speed of the flame. So-called ribbon burners represent
the last generation of burners available on the market. They consist
of a regular shaped slot mounted with a dimpled geometry ribbon
stack. Such a design can reduce the speed of part of the gas/air
mixture without needing devices such as deflectors or ignition rails.
To date, the ribbon burner is the most widely adopted solution at an
industrial level because it can attain customised flame patterns by
adjusting the width of the slot and configuring the ribbons [11].
8. Flame treatment variables
8.1. Process variables
8.1.1. Gas/air ratio
The molar ratio of the fuel to the oxidiser is probably the most
important parameter within the flame treatment process. For this
reason, particular care must be paid to setting it adequately before
the flame treatment is started. For each gas there exists a specific and
well-defined amount of oxidiser at which the fuel is completely
burnt. This precise ratio is known as the stoichiometric ratio, which
relies on the chemical structure of the gas. For example, the stoichiometric ratio methane/air by mass is equal to 1:17.2, whereas for
a propane/air flame it is 1:15.5, i.e., 15.5 kg of air is needed for the
complete combustion of 1 kg of propane. However, in practical
applications it is unlikely that the stoichiometric ratio can be verified. Most probably, the flame obtained will be below or above this
value. Therefore, the concept of the equivalence ratio (f), defined as
the actual mass gas/air ratio used during treatment divided the
stoichiometric fuel-to-oxidiser ratio [43], is widely accepted:
8.1.2. Mixture flow
Based on the previous discussion, it is necessary to expose the
polyolefin surface to a certain amount of thermal energy (heat) to
achieve the desired activation of the web surface. Defining this
quantity is not an easy task because the thermal energy required
during the flaming process strongly relies on other parameters.
Among them, it is worth mentioning flame power (i.e., the product
of the volume of fuel burned per unit time and the heat content of
the fuel, expressed in W), the exposure time of the film to the flame,
the configuration of the burner, and the gap between the flame and
film surface. However, a practical way to control the energy
supplied to the web is to adjust the mixture flow (m3 h1).
Increasing the mixture flow leads to a corresponding increase in the
treatment efficacy to a certain level (Fig. 7, Q1). Any mixture flow
setting beyond this boundary value (Fig. 7, Q2) is profitless and
causes unnecessary energy waste and thermal stress on the plastic
film. Based on these principles, it has been possible to set down the
relationship between mixture flow and flame treatment efficacy in
terms of the surface energy of the treated surface.
In Fig. 8, the results obtained by our team for bi-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) at low and high line speeds are reported (per unit
where m is the mass. The most common parameter is the reciprocal
of the equivalence ratio, which is called the lambda factor and is
expressed by the formula:
l ¼ f1
This is because although excess fuel (or oxidiser flame) could
never participate chemically in the combustion reaction, it does
affect the system from a physical point of view since, depending on
its specific heat value, such an excess tends to draw heat from the
combustion system, thereby causing the aforementioned decrease
in yield. In practice, the most widely adopted configuration foresees
a fuel/air ratio slightly shifted to an oxidising flame composition (i.
e., fuel-lean), because, as mentioned previously, the web surface
activation strictly depends on both flame temperature and oxygen
radical concentration. Thus, the best working condition can often
be a compromise between high flame temperature and oxygen
radical content in the flame. It has been proven by many authors
that oxidising flames (0.75 < f < 1) lead to the best surface activation of polyolefin substrates [37,38,44,45]. More recently,
a detailed report by Strobel and co-workers [13] suggested the best
performing equivalence ratio was 0.93 for all combinations of
flame-to-film distance, flame power, and film speed using
a methane/air mixture. At this optimum value, a maximum surface
energy of approximately 62 mJ m2 (according to the ASTM wetting
test standard method [46]) was achieved. Accordingly, the highest
ESCA O/C atomic ratio of flame-treated PP was recorded for
equivalence ratio values ranging between 0.92 and 0.94, thereby
following the same trend as the wettability measures. The authors
concluded that such a high level of oxidation is the main reason for
the increased wettability of the flame-treated PP surface.
As a consequence, fuel-lean (oxidising) flames will have f < 1
and fuel-rich flames f > 1 (vice versa as far as the l factor is concerned). Unambiguously, both l and f will be equal to the unit at
the stoichiometric ratio. It is worth pointing out that, for a given
combustion system, the maximum yield (expressed in terms of
flame temperature) is achieved at the stoichiometric ratio, where
neither excess fuel nor excess oxidiser can be verified. Conversely,
as f veers from the stoichiometric value (below and above), the
flame temperature drops correspondingly (Fig. 6).
Flame temperature
mfuel =moxidizer
mfuel =moxidizer stoichiometric
f¼ 9
Fig. 6. Flame temperature trend as a function of the equivalence ratio (f).
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Surface energy (dyne cm-1)
8.1.3. Flame/surface gap
It is widely recognised that the gap between the flame and web
surface (i.e., the distance between the tips of the luminous flame
cones and polyolefin surface) is a key factor in determining the
extent of activation accomplished by the treatment. As a general
trend, it has been observed that when the film passes through the
flame, a rapid depletion in the wettability of the treated surface
occurs. As the distance between the cone of the flame and film
surface increases, surface activation decreases, although a beneficial effect arising from the treatment is still appreciable up to
approximately 20 mm.
Many researchers have carried out empirical tests to set the
optimum distance between the flame and film surface. Ayers and
Shofner suggested that the optimum distance was 0e6 mm above
the luminous flame front [47]. Sheng and co-workers pointed out
that the most effective flame treatment on the activation of PP webs
is achieved 5e10 mm film-to-flame distance [48]. Other authors
concluded that to achieve the best wettability and oxidation of
polyolefin surfaces, the distance between the tips of the flame
cones and web surface should be less than 10 mm [37]. The
conclusions by Strobel and co-workers confirm further the
tendency to position the film slightly beyond the luminous cone
[13]. The authors fixed the right film-to-flame gap at 2 mm for a PP
film treated with a methane/air mixture at a 0.93 equivalence ratio.
These findings are consistent with the flame profile theory discussed above. Indeed, to maximise the benefit from the treatment,
the flame should work in tandem with its luminous zone, which is
the richest in active oxidising species (OH radicals and O atoms)
and the one at the highest temperature within the whole
combustion system. Conversely, when the film-to-flame distance is
set below 1.5e2.0 mm, the part of the flame involved is the ‘dark
zone’. Here, the contribution by the flame temperature is negligible
and the reactive oxidising species are almost absent. Rather, this
zone has plenty of hydrogen radicals, which tend to recombine
with oxygen radicals and thereby act as a limiting factor in the
oxidation mechanism of the film surface. Analogously, placing the
film surface further than 1.5e2.0 mm from the tips of the luminous
flame cones would mean the flame treatment would be less
effective than in the luminous zone. However, since both the flame
temperature and oxygen radical concentration are higher in this
region (post-combustion) than in the dark zone, some positive
effect because of the flame is still detectable on the treated film
surface. This fact explains the typical aspect of the curve obtained
by plotting the surface energy values as a function of the film-toflame distance. As shown in Fig. 9, this curve is asymmetric with
respect to the maximum surface energy value found at a film-to-
Mixture flow (m3 h-1)
Fig. 7. Surface energy evolution as a function of the gas/air mixture flow.
Surface energy (dyne cm-1)
of burner width). Such types of plots are useful tools for pinpointing
the best conditions for each specific application.
150 m/min
200 m/min
250 m/min
300 m/min
Mixture flow (Nm3 h-1 m-1)*
Surface energy (dyne cm-1)
350 m/min
400 m/min
450 m/min
500 m/min
-1 *
Mixture flow (Nm h m )
Fig. 8. Inluence of the mixture flow on the surface energy of treated BOPP at low (a)
and high (b) speeds. *Normal cubic metres per hour, equal to one cubic metre under
“normal” conditions, defined as 0 C and 1 atm (101.3 kPa).
flame distance of approximately 2 mm, indicating that the positive
effect of flame treatment is still somehow evident in the postcombustion zone, whereas it quickly drops to zero in the dark region.
8.1.4. Temperature and relative humidity external conditions
The temperature (T) and relative humidity (RH) of the
surroundings are often underestimated parameters during flame
treatment, but these can greatly affect the final outcome of the
process because increases in either can cause a shift in the gas/air
mixture towards a fuel-rich composition, thereby provoking
a dramatic change in the properties of the treated surface of the
polyolefin film. The influence of both temperature and relative
humidity is schematically displayed in Fig. 10. Here, it is possible to
observe that the value of l diverges from its initial setting (w1.04)
owing to an increase in temperature and relative humidity. This
diagram was obtained from natural gas (relative density ¼ 0.59)
under the hypothesis that the mixture is in the stoichiometric
condition at T ¼ 20 C and RH ¼ 0%. Based on these considerations,
a systematic check of the gas/air mixture is deemed necessary to
keep it constant, regardless of the influence of external conditions.
For this purpose, a wide variety of portable and online devices
enabling the measurement of any variation in l due to changes in
room conditions, are available on the market.
8.1.5. Number of sequential treatments
A final aspect that should be carefully taken into consideration is
the number of treatments to which the film surface has been
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8.2. Sample variables
Surface energy (dyne cm-1)
8.2.1. Surface contaminations
Although often underestimated, the potential presence of
contaminants on the plastic surface is an important aspect to face,
since it directly influences the efficacy of flame treatment. Probably
because of the high potency associated with a flame, a common
misconception is that to activate a polyolefinic surface, flame
treating it using a proper fuel/air mixture is the only prerequisite.
Instead, the activation step is a necessary but insufficient condition
to assure durable adhesion at the polyolefin substrate/coating
interface. Contaminations of samples can originate from different
causes, for example, the manufacturing processes and storage
conditions of the polyolefinic substrates. Even though they are not
always easy to detect, typical residuals can be found on the surface
of finished objects, such as spots of the releasing agents commonly
used in the injection moulding process (e.g., silicones), additives
migrated from the bulk (plasticisers, antioxidants), or, more simply,
dust. Irrespective of the origin, the final effect will be the inhibition
(more or less deeply depending on the extent of the contamination)
of the surface activation promoted by the flame. This is because of
the ‘shield effect’, whereby the contaminant screens regions of the
Film-to-flame distance (mm)
Fig. 9. General trend of the surface energy values of flame-treated polyolefin films as
a function of the film-to-flame gap.
λ value
submitted. Although it strongly depends on other aspects (i.e.,
flame temperature, flame flow, flame-to-film distance), some
general considerations can help carry out the appropriate treatment. Contrary to what common sense might suggest, increasing
the number of treatments in the same sample does not imply
a proportional increase in the surface properties of the polyolefin
surface. Indeed, in particular when high temperatures are reached,
over treatment lead to surface reorganisation in the modified
polymer surface. Two different phenomena have been highlighted
in this respect [8]. On one hand, as a result of over treatment, the
oxygen-containing functional groups inserted in the first step of
treatment can disappear from the surface. On the other hand, high
temperatures can trigger the migration of the additives normally
included in polyolefin compounds, such as heat stabilisers, release
agents, antistatics, and UV stabilisers. In both cases, the final result
is the same: the wettability and adhesion properties of the plastic
surface are irremediably compromised and the successful
deposition of paints, inks, or whatever coating will be hindered. To
prevent these detrimental effects, when planning more than one
treatment on the same sample it is very important to avoid
excessively short time intervals between two sequential flames to
allow the heat generated by the flame to dissipate properly.
RH = 0%
RH = 25%
RH = 50%
RH = 75%
RH = 100%
Temperature (°C)
Fig. 10. Influence of room conditions (temperature and relative humidity) on the l
value of a stoichiometric (T ¼ 20 C; RH ¼ 0%) natural gas (dr ¼ 0.59)/air mixture.
polymer susceptible to chemical modifications mediated by the
treatment. Therefore, following the flaming, a lower amount of
chemical modifications will be found per unit of the treated area. As
an ultimate consequence, the deposition of whatever coating will
be dramatically affected in those zones of the plastic substrate
lacking adequate wettability. To counteract these considerations,
the proper cleaning step of the polyolefin surface should be always
planned, especially for long-term adhesion durability. This can be
achieved in different ways. Among them, blow-off dust devices
(generally in the form of brush), nitrogen gas steam, and solvent
degreasing are the most widely used strategies. The final choice
greatly depends on the shape of the samples and specific
manufacturing constraints.
8.2.2. Topography of the surface
It is well established that the wettability of a polymer surface is
strongly affected by its topography. In this respect, two major
theories can explain the effect of the roughness of the surface on its
wettability behaviour: the Wenzel theory [49,50] and the CassieBaxter theory [51], which differ from Young’s theory that applies
only to perfectly smooth surfaces [52]. Although the surface
morphology affects the wettability properties, the extent of the
flame treatment also seems to be influenced by this parameter. Our
preliminary results corroborate this hypothesis. Injection-moulded
PP (nucleated heterophasic copolymer, Basell Polyolefins srl, Ferrara, Italy) square plates (40 mm width, 3 mm thick) at different
topographies (highly rough e H, medium-sized roughness e M, and
perfectly smooth e S) were analysed by atomic force microscopy
(AFM) before (Fig. 11) and after (Fig. 12) flame treatment. The three
untreated samples exhibited a noticeable difference in topography.
The smooth PP plates had an RMS roughness of approximately
390 nm, whereas the mean roughness of the M and H samples was
in the order of 550 nm and 1.34 mm, respectively. However,
apparently out of line with the aforementioned theories, both
water contact angle and surface energy values of the three
untreated samples (103.5 2.51 and 28.74 0.64 dyn cm1 for S
samples, 103.1 2.21 and 29.08 0.72 for M samples,
and102.3 2.66 and 29.37 0.88 dyn cm1 for H samples) were
quite similar, presumably because the differences in roughness
between samples were too narrow to justify statistically significant
distinctions. When subjected to the same flame treatment
(propane/air mixture with l ¼ 1.028; flame contact time ¼ 0.05 s;
film-to-flame distance ¼ 2.0 mm), all samples revealed a distinct
reduction of RMS roughness, which amounted to 270 nm, 340 nm,
and 490 nm for samples S, M, and H, respectively.
Noticeably, a clear dependence of the surface response to a given
flame treatment on the average roughness was found by optical
contact angle and surface energy measurements, which amounted
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Fig. 11. Left column: 100 100 mm2 AFM height images of: a) perfectly smooth e S; b) medium-sized roughness e M, and c) highly rough e H polypropylene untreated (nonflamed) samples. Right column: profile along the dashedotted line from the corresponding height image.
to 72.98 4.8 and 39.19 0.67 dyn cm1 for S samples,
50.23 3.6 and 44.53 0.58 dyn cm1 for M samples, and
40.43 2.24 and 48.89 0.75 dyn cm1 for H samples. A clear
trend is therefore demonstrated, with the roughest surface being
also the most sensible to flame treatment (i.e. leading to the largest
variations in its own wettability properties).
Although the total effective exposed surface area for the
untreated rough samples is not considerably larger than that of
smooth samples (less than 10% difference), a tentative explanation
for this trend should likely consider that the amount of polyolefinic
substrate exposed to the flame (per unit area) increased proportionally to the roughness of the sample. According to this hypothesis, the roughest samples would be oxidised to a larger extent than
the smoothest ones.
It is also worth noting that AFM images of treated samples
clearly revealed, within our spatial resolution, that other relevant
structural changes occurred at the surface of S samples (Fig. 12a),
with the appearance of small, evenly distributed agglomerates on
the treated surface, with dimensions in the order of 0.5e1.0 mm in
height and few microns in width (Fig. 13). On the contrary, height
images captured from samples M and S did not show any apparent
evolution from this point of view after the treatment (Fig. 12b and c,
respectively). This observation suggests a further likely scenario.
Owing to the flame treatment, it might be plausible that the S
samples underwent a reorganisation at the surface level, as already
postulated in an earlier paper [8]. Whether such modifications rely
on the migration of additives from the bulk to the surface of the
polymer because of the high temperature or on the disappearing of
oxygen-containing groups from the surface is still unknown. X-ray
photoelectron spectroscopy, confocal Raman microscopy, and FTIRATR spectroscopy analyses currently carried out within our group
should provide our ongoing research with further elucidations.
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S. Farris et al. / Polymer xxx (2010) 1e15
Fig. 12. Left column: 100 100 mm2 AFM height images of: a) perfectly smooth e S; b) medium-sized roughness e M, and c) highly rough e H polypropylene flame-treated
samples. Right column: profile along the dashedotted line from the corresponding height image.
Fig. 13. Magnified topography of an aggregate from the height image in Fig. 12a and corresponding section along the dashedotted line.
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9. Concluding remarks
Flame treatment is a powerful technique for enhancing the
surface attributes of plastic materials, especially those with a marked
inherent hydrophobicity such as polyolefins. However, its potential
has not been completely capitalised so far for two main reasons: 1)
the lack of familiarity with the principles governing the combustion
phenomena; and 2) the high number of parameters affecting the
overall flame treatment process, which make the initial tweak of the
flame equipment time consuming and frustrating, especially
compared with alternative techniques such as the corona discharge,
which is nowadays widely used in specific applications such as the
treatment of polyolefin films intended for packaging applications.
Although it has not been possible to address all topics related to
the flame phenomenon, this review has attempted to provide the
basic tools to rationally exploit flame treatment at both an industrial
and academic level. Our discussion was based on some major guiding
principles. Firstly, without knowing the underlying fundamentals of
flame chemistry it is difficult to manage the flame phenomena in any
application. Secondly, knowing the most important controlling
factors of the overall process and being aware of how these parameters can affect the final outcome is of utmost importance to gain the
maximum benefit from the treatment. Thirdly, it is essential to
understand how to control the process variables to keep the flame
treatment setting as standardised as possible, because even minimal
changes can cause huge deviations in the expected results, i.e., the
low surface activation of treated surfaces. Therefore, controlling
accurately all parameters throughout the process represents a major
task that cannot be procrastinated longer in any industrial application envisaging using flame to activate polymer surfaces. It is
important to stress that although generally valid, the concepts outlined in this review do not apply in any circumstance; hence, some
aspects need to be faced separately depending on the specific
application. For example, the influence of the substrate has to be
regarded carefully, since different polyolefin types are affected in
different ways by modification treatment. Therefore, tailored operative conditions have to be pinpointed accordingly.
A systematic approach to using flame as a surface-activation
technique is not only necessary for obtaining reproducible results
but would decisively encourage the future development of new
structures. This notion is supported by strong recent research
attention on the potential use of biomacromolecules in many
applications, such as within the packaging industry, motivated by
the growing needs for more sustainable solutions. To address this
issue, many researchers have suggested a way of generating new
optimised structures, in which the use of plastic resins should be less
of a driving force to lighter configurations without jeopardising the
overall performance of the package. This can be attained by
replacing multi-layered architectures with high performance thin
coatings. In addition, recent advancements in the coatings field have
provided the opportunity of fabricating composite structures by
laying plastic substrates with water-based bio-coatings (i.e.,
obtained from molecules of natural origin). Among other benefits,
this would allow cleaner processes, since the use of organic solvents
normally used for synthetic coatings is avoided. However, the
deposition of totally waterborne coatings onto polyolefin surfaces is
a tough target because of the higher surface tension of water-based
coatings compared with current formulations. With this scenario in
mind, a remarkable contribution could arise from flame treatment
becoming a leading technique for the surface activation of inherently hydrophobic polymers. This can be accomplished not only by
appropriately using this technique but also finding out new setting
conditions and technical advancements that would achieve very
high surface energy values on treated surfaces. This would make it
possible to use totally water-based solutions, paving the way for new
structures that have not yet been obtained, e.g., polyolefins/biobased coating pairs. Certainly, worldwide research activity can
greatly help this challenge over future years.
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Please cite this article in press as: Farris S, et al., Polymer (2010), doi:10.1016/j.polymer.2010.05.036
S. Farris et al. / Polymer xxx (2010) 1e15
Stefano Farris is a post-doctoral researcher in
the Department of Food Science and Microbiology (DiSTAM) at the University of Milan e
Packaging Lab. He received his M.S. in Agricultural Science & Technology from the
University of Sassari, Italy, in 2004. In the
same year he joined the Food Packaging Lab
(Packlab) led by Prof. L. Piergiovanni at the
University of Milan. There, in 2007 he earned
his PhD in Food and Microbial Biotechnology
in collaboration and by the financial support
of the University of Sassari. His thesis defense
focused on the different packaging strategies
to extend the shelf-life of multi-domain foods.
From 2007 to 2008 he was a postdoctoral
fellow at Rutgers, The State University of New
Jersey e Department of Food Science, in the
Food Packaging Lab led by Prof. K. Yam, where
he worked on the development of new films
and coatings partially or totally obtained from
renewable resources. His current research activity at Packlab is devoted to the development and deposition of new high-performance waterborne bio-coatings.
After obtaining his degree, Lamberto Duò
worked as a postdoc at the Surface Science
Centre of the University of Liverpool (UK) on
electron spectroscopies of metal alloys. He
was then appointed as a staff scientist to the
Physics Department of the Politecnico di
Milano, where, in 1999, he became associate
professor of physics. Professor Duò worked on
highly correlated electron systems, spin
resolved electron spectroscopies of magnetic
systems with low dimensionality, and scanning probe microscopies with a special
emphasis on scanning near-field optical
microscopy. He is author of over 120
Simone Pozzoli was born in 1986. He is
a master student in the Department of Food
Science and Microbiology (DiSTAM) at the
University of Milan e Packaging Lab (Packlab),
under the supervision of Professor L. Piergiovanni. His research activity is focused on the
surface activation of polyolefins by flame
treatment and new alternative routes.
Currently, his activity at Packlab is granted by
industrial partners (Mitaca srl and esseCI srl).
Paolo Biagioni obtained his Ph.D. in Physics
at the Physics Department of the Politecnico
di Milano, under the supervision of professor
Lamberto Duò. After that, he worked as
a post-doc researcher in Milano and then at
the Physics Department of the University of
Würzburg, in the group of professor Bert
Hecht. At present, he holds a research position at the Physics Department of the Politecnico di Milano. His main interests are in
scanning probe microscopy and plasmonics.
He is author of over 35 publications.
Born in 1950, Luciano Piergiovanni is full
professor of “Food Science & Technology” in
the Department of Food Science & Microbiology (DiSTAM), University of Milan. He is the
head of the Packaging Laboratory (Packlab),
where he coordinates different research
activities dealing with some major topics,
such as modified atmosphere packaging of
perishable foods, modeling and forecasting of
foods shelf-life in flexible packaging, validation of new packaging materials and techniques. He is responsible for the PhD Program
of Food Science Technology and President of
the Italian Scientific Group for Food Packaging
(GSICA). He has been visiting professor in the
Universities of San Paolo (Brasil) and Santafè
de Bogotà (Colombia). He is author of two text
books on food packaging, 3 chapters in
international text books, 7 patents in the
packaging field and more than two hundred
works among scientific publications, communications to conferences, technical and
popular articles. He coordinated research teams in projects sponsored by National
Institutions and European Union. He belongs to the Editorial Board of Packaging
Technology and Science, Industria delle Conserve, Croatian Journal of Food Science and
Technology and Brazilian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Please cite this article in press as: Farris S, et al., Polymer (2010), doi:10.1016/j.polymer.2010.05.036
Stefano Mancinelli earned his M.S. in Materials Engineering at University of Perugia in
1998. In his over 11 years employment in
esseCI srl company, he has acquired a deep
experience in the field of flame treatment as
process engineer involved in plants commissioning and post sale customer service all
over the world. Currently, he is company
process manager and pilot plant responsible.