Solid surface materials: From countertops to science fiction

Lars Rose
13 January 2016

Above: Promotional image for the movie (Disney Movies)

Have you have seen the movie TRON:Legacy? Ever wonder what all that cool white and black stuff was made with (the bits that weren’t computer generated)? It’s called Corian, a solid surface material developed and trademarked by DuPont in the 1960s. Even if you aren’t into science fiction movies, you have probably encountered Corian in your everyday life. It’s used in interior decorating for everything from sleek kitchen countertops to gussied-up bathrooms.

Materials like Corian are made using acrylic polymers and aluminum hydroxide. Since DuPont’s original patents have run out, several other companies have begun to develop alternatives using brand names like Avonite, Hanex, HiMacs, Meganite, Staron, or Swanstone. All these materials can mimic the look of most other materials while providing many advantages.

Did you know? In addition to countertops, acrylic polymers are used to make Plexiglass, paints, fabrics, and even diapers.

Everything you ever wanted to know about kitchen countertops

Table made with Corian (Pierre Bergé, Wikimedia Commons)

Today, kitchens come with many different options for countertops. Aside from solid surface materials like Corian, one popular choice is bonded laminates. These are typically made by gluing colored polymers to a plywood or particleboard base. Countertops are also made with engineered materials like quartz, and natural stones such as soapstone, marble, or granite. However, all of these alternatives to Corian will show seams at corners and other places where different pieces of material need to be connected.

Furthermore, stone and mineral materials like granite can often be stained by dark liquids. This is because many natural stones remain somewhat porous even after they have been sealed. So liquids like red wine can seep in and then get stuck in the material’s tiny crevices. For example, granite is an igneous rock that contains a minimum of 20 per cent quartz by volume. When microscopic pores and crevices are close to the light-colored quartz, dark stains can seep in and change the coloration of the stone.

In addition to being porous, mineral surfaces can be damaged by the acid in common ingredients like lemons. The surface will start to bubble and degrade, making it not very suitable for kitchens. For example, marble is a non-foliated rock made up of recrystallized carbonate minerals like calcium and magnesium carbonate. All stones that contain carbonates start to chemically decompose to carbon dioxide when they come in contact with an acid. For instance, this is what happens when you put a sliced lemon on marble:

  • Citric acid (lemon) + Calcium carbonate (marble) = Calcium citrate + Carbon dioxide + water

And here’s what that looks like as a chemical formula:

Open this formula in an accessible format (doc)

In other words, you’ll be left with an ugly countertop and some bubbly water.

Advantages and uses of solid surface materials

Corian and other solid surface materials made using acrylic polymers and aluminum hydroxide are non-porous. That means they resist stains and most acids typically used in kitchens. They are also seamless. Joints and seams can be made invisible by simply color matching the acrylic adhesive polymer used to fit the pieces together. Likewise, scratches and cuts can be buffed or sanded away.

Another advantage of solid surface materials is thermoformability. That describes the ability to reshape a material at high temperatures and have it retain its new shape when it cools down. For example, Corian can be moulded into any shape when heated above 160 degrees Celsius. As a result, it can easily be used to make anything from motorcycle panels to building decorations to airport furniture.

Of course, thermoformability can also be a disadvantage. Materials like Corian are typically only heat resistant to about 100 degrees Celsius. So boiling water is not a problem, but a hot frying pan could damage the countertop.

Did you know? Aluminum hydroxide--Al(OH)3——is a naturally-occurring compound found in the mineral gibbsite. It is a major source of aluminum as well as being used as a fire retardant and as an antacid.

* * *

So now you know what the world of the future could look like… or at least what it could be made of. Thanks to materials like Corian, the buildings, planes, trains, and cars of the future could well look like something out of a science fiction movie. And the next time your parents redecorate, you can help them choose the countertops!

Learn more!

Galleries of objects made with Corian, highlighting the material’s versatility:

Corian meets Disney (2011)
Lizzy Van Lysebeth, ID-Sphere

Corian. Design & Inspiration

Lars Rose

Lars Rose is a PhD candidate in high temperature Solid Oxide Fuel Cell research (that is sustainable energies), at the Department of Materials Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and at the National Research Council Canada, Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation (NRC-IFCI). He enjoys teaching fun stuff and is the current Media Relations and Human Resources coordinator of the outreach program Let's Talk Science at UBC. He enjoys writing science in a fun way for CurioCity, UBC Terry, the Science Creative Quarterly, Fuel Cell Today and Ubyssey.

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