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N2iJ National Research Conseil national

:, 2.
I Council Canada de recherche Canada



by Aurel Blaga

Reprinted from
Industrialization Forum
VoL 9, No. 1, 1978
p. 27 32

DBR Paper No. 823

Division of Building Research

Price 10 cents OTTAWA NRCC 17191


L'article porte sur la nature et les caractsristiques des

materiaux en polyester renforcE 21 la fibre de verre (PRV)
et traite brisvement de leurs principales applications dans
le domaine du bztiment. L'influence de la composition, du
type de renforcement, des techniques de fabrication et de
la nature du fini de surface sur les propri6tEs et la
durabilits des matEriaux en polyester renforcs 5 la fibre
de verre est analysEe. La nature et le mscanisme de
di5tErioration des composEs en polyester renforcg 5 la fibre
de verre dans divers milieux sont illustrEs par des micro
photographies obtenues 5 partir d'un microscope Electronique
B balayage, en mettant l'accent sur la dGtGrioration causEe
par les intempsries. Le r3le de leur composition et du
milieu sur la d6thrioration des matgriaux, qui commence
d'ordinaire 5 la surface extcrieure, est discut6 5 la
lumiere d'studes faites 1 la DRB/CNR.
Application. Building Products. Cracks(Fisurrs).
Deterioration. Labomtory Tests. Manufacturing Processes,
Physical Properties, Weatherability,
Articles., Blaga., Industrialization Forum., Year 1978..

GRP Composite Materials in Construction : Properties,

Applications and Durability.
Aurble Blaga.

The nature and properties of glass-fiber reinforced polyester (GRP) materials are described, and their prin-
cipal applications in construction outlined. The influence of formulation, type of reinforcement and
fabrication technique, and the nature of the surface finish, on the properties and durability of the GRP
composite material, is analyzed.
GRP composites are common in construction; the main components are the matrix and the reinforcing
glass, which cooperate to provide the special properties of the composite. Production techniques include
hand lay-up, continuous production and matched-die molding. Properties depend on composition and
fabrication, e.g. resin formulation, fillers, curing, reinforcement, coupling agent, surface finish and work-
manship. GRP composites are used as light-transmitting panels, sandwich panels, modular units and
for miscellaneous applications (storage tanks, formwork, windows etc.) Breakdown occurs at the glass-
resin interface and by surface micro-cracking.
The text is accompanied by microphotographs and by an extensive bibliography.

Introduction. which can be added either by the resin manufacturer

or by the fabricator of the GRP product, are fillers,
Glass-fiber reinforced polyester (GRP) composites pigments, fire retardants, ultraviolet (u.v.) light stab-
are the most common of all reinforced plastics used ilizers and thixotropic agents.
in the construction industry. Glass-fiber reinforced
polyester is also referred to as FRP (fiber-glass rein- A catalyst (initiator) and glass reinforcement are
forced polyester). Sheet-like materials are often call- added by the fabricator and the resulting mixture is
ed "GRP laminates". then ready for the production of the GRP item.
During fabrication, the monomer reacts with the
GRP composites are a range of materials ; depending polyester through free radical initiation, resulting in
on the formulation and use requirements, they may be crosslinking of the polyester chain and final cure. The
fabricated into products (structures and articles) that operation can be carried out with or without applica-
are light in weight, transparent, translucent or opa- tion of external heat, depending on the catalytic
que, colorless or colored, flat sheet or shaped. Further- system2.3. The ultimate result is a rigid solid material
more, there is no limit as to the size of object that in which the matrix has joined chemically and
can be made from GRP. mechanically with the reinforcing glass-fibers to
provide a synergistic composite structure whose
General Nature and Fabrication of GRP com- properties are very different froh, and significantly
posites. superior to, those of either material alone.

The two main components of a GRP composite are The glass reinforcement provides the strength for
the matrix and the reinforcing glass. The matrix is the the GRP composite. It is used in bundles of fibers
continuous phase. In itself, the matrix does not pro- or filaments (diameter ranging from 0.005 to 0.01
vide strength; its role is essential, however, since it mm or more) combined to form a strand. Glass-fiber
serves to bond the reinforcing glass-fiber together and reinforcement can be of several types, the most impor-
to transfer the load to the reinforcing phase. The tant being chopped strand, chopped strand mat, roving
matrix is based on cured thermosetting polyester or cloths. Chopped strand mat is the most widely
resinl.2. The raw material is supplied in the form of a used form of glass reinforcement, especially in sheet-
viscous, syrupy liquid, and comprises the following like materials. The strands (2 to 5 cm long) are
basic ingredients : a linear unsaturated polyester ; a distributed randomly. A coupling agent, usually a
crosslinking monomer (curing agent), usually styrene; silane derivative, is added and serves to bond the
and an inhibitor to retard crosslinking until the resin glass reinforcement to the resin. Use of an appropriate
is to be used by the fabricator. Other ingredients, coupling agent with a particular formulation and for a
Vol. 9, (1978), No. 1.
Type of Reinforcement
Propew* Chopped-Strand Parallel 143 Fabric
Mat or Premix Roving Parallel Laminated
Glass Content,
(by weight, O h ) 25 - 45 50 - 70 62 - 67
Specific Gravity 1.4 - 1 8 1.7 - 1.9 1.7 - 1.9
Tensile Strength, MPa 76 - 160 550 - 900 540 - 600
(103psi) 1 1 -23 80 - 130 78 -87
Tensile Modulus, MPa 5.6 - 12 -
( lo6 psi) 0.82 - 1.8 4.5
Flexural Strength, MPa 140 - 260 690 - 1400 590 - 720
(103psi) 20 - 38 100 - 200 85 - 105
Flexural Modulus, GPa 6.9 - 14 34 - 49 31 - 38
(lo6psi) 1.0 -2.0 5.0 - 7.0 4.5 - 5.5
Compressive Strength, 120 - 180 340 - 480 280 - 340
MPa (lo3psi) 18-26 50 - 70 40 - 50

The matrix is based on general purpose unsaturated thermosetting polyester resin.

" Resistance to continuous heat (150-205°C; 300-400°F)9.

Table 1. Physical properties of glass-fiber reinforced polyester* sheet (reinforced with various glass
fiber constructions) 12.13.

specific application is very important. Good bonding continuous process are uniformity of product, efficient
results in good mechanical and electrical properties, use of raw material, higher production capacity and
improved resistance to moisture and to thermal effects lower labor costs. This process is not yet fully
of the service environment2.4. This is particularly automated; a skilled operator is needed to maintain
important for fibers close to the surface, which are desirable efficiencies and product quality.
subjected to greater stresses induced by the environ-
ment 596. One of the newer processes3.9, allowing for more
automation, uses sheet molding compound (SMC) in
The performance of a GRP material in a given matched-die molding. SMC's, which are in a sheet-like
application will depend to a large extent on the method form, consist of a complets blend containing catalysed,
of man~facture2,~.8. GRP components for construc- unsaturated polyester resin, a reinforcement, filler,
tion applications may be made by any of the con- and pigment. The SMC is supplied in rolls, with the
ventional techniques, including hand lay-up, conti- unfinished sheet-like composite packed between films
nuous process, spray-up process, cold press or hot of polyethylene. It permits molding of large and
press molding, and filament winding2.3J. The actual complicated pieces that may be varied greatly in thick-
method of manufacture will be determined by the ness and that have molded-in ribs, inserts, bosses or
number of components which are needed, their di- threads, sharp radii and comers as well as other
mensions, the properties required and cost. A designer modifications. The fabricated parts have a smooth
must, therefore, determine the method of manufacture molded surface, without fiber pattern, resulting in an
of a component at an early stage in the design. improved surface wear layer and therefore superior
chemical and weather resistance than in parts made
The hand lay-up, the oldest method and one that by hand lay-up. Products made by this method are
requires a minimum of equipment, is at present used used mainly in automotive applications, but their use
to make large, unconventional components and a is now spreading to furniture and construction appli-
relatively small number of small parts whose size cations.
and/or quantity would not justify the expense of pro-
duction tooling. This method consists of impregnating
the glass-fiber reinforcement with the liquid, thermo-
settable resin in an open mold (of wood, plaster, Properties.
concrete, or reinforced plastic) and inducing cure at
room temperature with little or no external pressure2s3. The properties of the finished GRP composite material
depend on a great number of compositional and
Currently, sheeting material for translucent flat and fabrication factors, some of the most important being
corrugated panels is made mainly by a continuous resin formulation, filler, curing conditions, type and
process 3. The glass-reinforcement (strands of chopped amount of reinforcement, coupling agent, fabrication
roving or chopped strand mat) is deposited on a film of process and workmanship (which governs density,
regenerated cellulose supported by a moving conveyor void content, presence of contaminants), and surface
belt, compactors and/or impregnators force the resin finish.
into the mat to thoroughly wet the fibers, then an
upper film is applied to encase the material. GRP GRP composites based on general purpose resin, a
profiles, such as angles and channels, can also be thermosetting material, are rigid and do not flow
made by this process. The major advantages of the significantly under relatively high temperatures. By
appropriate choice of ingredients, special properties (about 85%), light weight, toughness and, where appro-
can be achieved 3.10.H. For example,$re retardance can priate, fire retardancy, transparent and translucent GRP
be imparted by incorporating appropriate additives, but panels (usually corrugated) have a variety of uses,
a preferable way is by modifying the basic unsaturated including glazing for skylights, luminous ceiling or
polyester resin to obtain built-in fire resistancelO. roofing, inner partitions, canopies for warehouses, rail-
Weathering resistance can be enhanced by the use of way stations, sports arenas, swimming pools and
neopentyl glycol and methyl methacrylate. To reduce agricultural buildingsl"l9. A special grade of GRP
shrinkage during curing, appropriate thermoplastic sheeting has been developed for use as glazing in
polymers can be added2. flat-plate solar collectors 20.
GRPs that are reinforced with E glass fibers (those
with low alkali content) have good resistance to weath- Opaque and Sandwich Panels.
ering, water and alkali; those with A glass fibers (high GRP sheet materials are used as cladding on other
alkali) are considered to be more resistant under acid structural materials or as an integral part of either
conditions but do not weather well. GRP reinforced a structural or a non-load-bearing wall panel. In the
with chopped strand mat is essentially isotropic, former, it functions as a decorative cladding on
whereas cloth fabric reinforaement and roving give structures of concrete or brick, as it provides a wide
a material which is anisotropic in character with range of colored and textured surfaces. The GRP sheet
varying directional properties '. used is usually opaque, but it may also be translucent
The glass content of GRP composites affects or transparent.
strength properties and durability. The higher the As an integral part of either a structural or non-
glass-fiber content, the stronger the material. However, load-bearing panel, opaque GRP can be used in a
too high a glass content may result in insufficient variety of ways in conjunction with other materials
impregnation, and therefore poorer bonding. The glass as cladding for buildings 15,19,21-24. In these panels,
content of GRP reinforced with chopped strand mat GRP is invariably the exterior skin. The most popular
generally varies between 25 to 35%; for GRP rein- panel is the sandwich type, with an inner and outer
forced with cloth, the glass content ranges from 50 to skin of GRP and a foam core of PVC, polystyrene,
63%. Sheet material manufactured by hand lay-up polyurethane or phenolic p l a s t i ~ ~ .The
~ ~ ,successful
process will have lower strength properties than those use of foamed core prefabricated sandwich panels as
fabricated by a press-molding process. exterior cladding for large buildings has been re-
Because of the great number of factors which p0rted25,~~.
The prefabricated panels are light in weight,
define a GRP composite, the range of mechanical and and thus easy to install with minimum equipment and
other physical properties is very wide. For example, low labor cost. Another application for foam-cored
the tensile strength at room temperature may vary GRP-faced sandwich panels is as wall panels in mobile
from 69 MPa (lo4 psi) to 896 MPa (13 x lo4 psi) or homes and in the fabrication of boat hulls. i
higher, wet strength retention from 50 to 95% and I
specific gravity from 1.2 to 1.9. The range of some . .GRP Composite in$e%%Gd-&d-~<dular Units;--'
physical properties given in Table I are typical for . '. Ease of t a b d o n of large components and simplicity
GRP sheet materials produced with normal care from 9
i & r t i d i n addition other desirable properties,
general purpose polyester resin and reinforced -wiA- _..-' such as lightness, makes GRP composite materials
three types of glass-fiber r e i n f o r c e m e n 3 ~ i r gcorn- particularly suitable for use in modular construction 23.26.
&:e?tl data on physical p r o p g ~ 6 GRP f composites Building components or sections are prefabricated and
can be-fouiX1n~kErZn~es 3, 8 and 9. rapidly assembled on the building site. Such structures
are p&ticularly suitable on sites where access is limited
Applications in Construction. or where the ground cannot support traditional struc-
tures without excessive cost for foundations. Examples
GRP composites used in construction can be divided include living accommodation and laboratories at An-
into two main classes: the standard items of manu- tarctic bases, lighthouse towers, desert accommoda-
facture such as single skin sheet (flat or corrugated) tion, living accommodation for those working on off-
or sandwich panels, and the custom structures de- shore drilling rigs. The walls of sections or modules
signed for a given application by an architect or en- usually consist of GRP sandwich panel with a plastic
gineer. As details of the manufacturing processes, foam or a honeycomb core.
properties and structual capabilities for standard
products have been established2~7~'2~'"'6 it should be Miscellaneous Applications.
relatively easy to incorporate them into a design Is.
Regarding the use of custom-tailored structures, the GRP i s a very convenient structural material for the
building designer should consider the basic character- prefabrication of bathroom units and componentsZ6gz7.
istics, behavior of the material and the manufacturing GRP composite made by press molding is used in the
processes when selecting the appropriate material for fabrication of cold and hot water storage tanks. When
a given application ',la. the matrix is made from a special type of polyester
resin, thorough testing has shown that the tank can
Light-transmitting Panels. withstand the action of pressure and temperature2.
GRP composite is also used in the fabrication of
Because of their relatively high light transmission window frames and concrete formwork 2,'6.
Comment : Durability.
Although considerable progress has been made to
improve GRP composites, commercial products of
these materials still deteriorate when used out of doors.
The deterioration usually starts at the outer surface ; its
rate of occurrence and extent depend on the composi-
tion of the material, manufacturing method, degree of
cure, nature of surface finish and service environment.
Recent studies performed at the Division of Building
Research, National Research Council of Canada on
sheet GRP materials have demonstrated that there are
two main types of surface deterioration5.6: break-
down in the glass-resin interface which results in fiber
prominence ("fiber pop-out") and surface microcrack-
ing of the matrix ("surface microcracking"). Both
affect principally the appearance of the GRP sheet
and its light transmission. When surface deterioration
is severe. mechanical and other . ~ r o ~ e r t i eare
s also
adversely'affected. Other changes occuning in outdoor Figure 1. Surface of GRP Control Sheet.
exposure are discoloration and surface pitting, which
may also affect the physical properties of the sheet.
Studies at DBR included subjecting GRP sheets to
artificial and natural weathering5.6 and assessing the
surface deterioration by the scanning electron micro-
scope(SEM). To illustrate the nature and some of the
main stages of surface deteriorgtion, SEM micrographs
are presented in Figures 1 to 6.
Based on the results of this study, a mechanism
was postulated for each of the two main types of
surface breakdo~n6.28~29. Fiber prominence occurs long
before surface microcracking because the glass-resin
interface in the surface region is more susceptible to
brpkdown than the more homogeneous matrix. In-
deed. owing to great dissimilarities in most properties
(inchrdmg thermal k x p a n s i b n i i t e r absorption and
strain response), the main compone
"&, of the inter-
face respond differently to the action of en 'ronmental
factors such as moisture and temnerature. Thus t k - --
cyclic variations (natural fluctuatioAs) of moisture and ~ i ~ u r c 2 . - ~ of
a cGRP
e Sheet aged in the weathering
temperature in the outdoor environment produce dif-
ferential volume changes in the glass and resin at the
maclfin- 55 cycles.
1- .-- -
_ -_--
interface. This results in alternating stresses which im-
pose a stress-fatigue on the matrix of the interface
region. These physically induced stresses produce rup-
ture of the matrix resin, mostly parallel to the glass
fiber. The cracks along the glass fibers (fig. 2) may
occur after relatively short periods of exposure, de-
pending on the intensity of stresses at a particular site.
Solar radiation causes the resin to become quite
brittle, as a result of post-crosslinking ; thus the matrix
at the interface may suffer severe fragmentation or
spalling (fig. 3). The rate of breakdown is greater in
glass-rich regions (multifilament locations) than in resin-
rich regions (at single filaments and at sites with few
filaments). The glass fibers eventually become com-
pletely delaminated. The delamination becomes exces-
sive with aging and results in a great number of fibers
lying on the surface of the sheet, but still retained
at some points of their length by the matrix (fig. 4)
This type of deterioration is commonly called "fiber Figure 3. Surface of GRP Sheet aged in the weathering
prominence" or "fiber pop-out". The underside of a machine for 300 cycles.
GRP sheet also undergoes this type of breakdown,
but at a considerably slower rate (fig. 5).
Although fiber prominence may be induced just
by humidity-temperature cycling, the simultaneous
exposure to radiation greatly promotes its formation,
especially in the later stages of deterioration.
Surface microcracking generally occurs on the side
exposed to solar radiation, usually after fiber promin-
ence has become relatively advanced5.29. Results have
indicated that it is caused by radiation and stress
fatigue, which is induced by moisture and temperature.
In accordance with the proposed mechanismz9, the
resin in the exposed surface of the GRP sheet under-
goes gradual crosslinking, due to the influence of the
ultraviolet portion of the radiation. This results in
shrinkage that produces permanent tensile stresses in
the surface matrix, with gradients from the surface
Figure 4. Surface of GRP Sheet (top side) weathered h ~ a r d .When the surface resin rw~ches a certain
outdoors for 12 years. degree of rigidity as a result of post-crosslinking, it
can no longer
- deform reversibly under the action of
stress-fatigue, and thus undergoes fracture. The ex-
posed surface of GRP sheet weathered outdoors for
12 years is shown in Figure 6. The cracks grow
from the surface inwards and are V-shaped, indicating
that the stresses involved are tensile and have a
gradient. The cracks are confined to the surface region
(5 to 10 pm deep) of the exposed side. These studies
have demonstrated that breakdown induced by
exposure to outdoor weathering can be reproduced in
the laboratory.
The scattered fibers, the very irregular surface of
the fractured matrix, and the microcavities diffuse
some of the light instead of transmitting it, and thus
renders an originally translucent sheet increasingly
more opaque. Both types of deterioration. fiber pro-
minence and surface microcracking, impair the ap-
pearance of the GRP sheet (with conventional surface
finish) and may render it aesthetically unacceptable
Figure 5. Surface of GRP Sheet (under side) weathered after a period of 10 to l5 years, On the
outdoors for 12 years. formulation.

Fire-retardant GRP sheets have considerably lower

resistance to breakdown when exposed to the outdoor
environment30. Tests have shown that one common
type of fire-retardant GRP sheet (based on tetra-
chlorophthalic acid polyester) undergoes both types of
surface deterioration 2.5 to 3 times faster than sheets
based on general purpose (conventional) polyester

As most of the deterioration is confined to the

surface material, the surface region can be modified
to increase the resistance of the GRP sheet to break-
down. For example, use of a gel coat as a surface
finish of GRP sheets protects the glass-resin interface
against the effect of moisture and/or temperature-
induced stress-fatigue and thus no fiber prominence
occurs 31. Microcracks will form, however, after ap-
proximately the same period of exposure as in sheets
with a conventional surface finish, unless a specially
Figure 6 . Surface of GRp Sheet weathered outdoors formulated resin, highly resistant to U.V. light, is used
for 12 years. in the gel coat. Good resistance to both types of
breakdown is achieved by coating the GRP sheets
with a lacquer based on u.v.-stabilized acrylic resin. About the Author :
The acrylic coating protects the glass-resin interface
against the effect of stress-fatigue and the underlying Dr. Aur& Blaga is a Research Oficer in the Building
Materials Section of the Division of Building Research,
matrix against the action of U.V.light3'. This type of National Research Council of Canada. Dr. Blaga
coating may be particularly useful for fire-retardant holds a degree in Chemical Engineering (University
GRP sheets, which are especially susceptible to break- of Caen, France) and a PhD in Organic Chemistry
down in outdoor exposureg0. Similarly, GRP sheets ( M c Gill University). Prior to joining NRC, Dr. Blaga
worked in industrial research organizations. Curren-
protected with a u.v.-stabilized (in-plant laminated) tly, he is conducting research into the durability of
PVF surfacing film (0.025 mm thick) have remarkable plastics and composites and has published numerous
resistance to the effect of weathering3O. papers on this subject.

References :
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Building Research, National Research Council of 1973.
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London, Zliffe Books, 1970. terial and Its Uses," Architects' J., Vol. 157, 699,
3. Mohr, J. G., et al., SPI Handbook of Technology 1973.
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4. Matthan, J., et al., Editors, Aging and Weathering 19. Saechtling, H., Bauen d t Kunstoffen, Miinchen,
of Plastics, A review of the Literature, Shawbury, Carl Hans Verlag, 1973.
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14. Schwartz, R. T., and H . S . Schwartz, Fundamental 29. Blaga, A., and R. Yamasaki, "Mechanism of
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15. Read, T., and T. O'Brien, "Principles of Detail- 30. Blaga, A., and R. S. Yamasaki, "Outdoor Durab-
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GRP panels used in cladding applications. 31. Blaga, A., and R. S. Yamasalti,"Effect o f Surface
Finish on the Durabilit-v of G R P Sheets". RILEM
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