Polycarbonate vs. ABS: Material Differences and Comparisons

In the world of manufacturing and product design, selecting the right plastic material is crucial for ensuring the success and longevity of your products. Two of the most commonly used plastics are polycarbonate (PC) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). While both materials have their strengths and weaknesses, understanding the key differences between polycarbonate and ABS can help you make informed decisions when choosing the best material for your specific application.

In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the properties, applications, and distinctions between polycarbonate and ABS plastics. By the end of this piece, you will have a clear understanding of which material is best suited for your needs, whether you are a manufacturer, designer, or consumer.

What is Polycarbonate?

Polycarbonate (PC) is an engineered thermoplastic known for its exceptional strength, durability, and versatility. It is composed of repeating units of carbonate groups (CO3) linked together by phosphate groups, creating a robust polymer structure. Polycarbonate boasts several key properties that make it an attractive choice for various industries:

  • High impact resistance: PC can withstand significant impacts without cracking or shattering, making it ideal for applications where durability is paramount.
  • Excellent transparency: Polycarbonate is naturally transparent, allowing for the creation of clear, lightweight products with good optical clarity.
  • Heat resistance: With a glass transition temperature of approximately 147°C (297°F), polycarbonate maintains its mechanical properties even at elevated temperatures.
  • Dimensional stability: PC exhibits minimal shrinkage and warpage during processing, ensuring consistent and accurate part dimensions.

These properties have made polycarbonate a go-to material for a wide range of applications, including:

  • Automotive components (headlight lenses, interior trim, sunroofs)
  • Construction materials (roofing, glazing, safety shields)
  • Electronic devices (mobile phone cases, computer housings, display screens)
  • Medical equipment (surgical instruments, medical devices, dental implants)
  • Eyewear and sports visors
  • Bulletproof glass and security barriers

Polycarbonate’s unique combination of strength, transparency, and heat resistance has solidified its position as a versatile and reliable material in numerous industries.

What is ABS?

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic polymer that combines the strength and rigidity of acrylonitrile and styrene polymers with the toughness of polybutadiene rubber. This unique blend of properties makes ABS a popular choice for a variety of applications. Some of the key characteristics of ABS include:

  • Impact resistance: ABS is known for its outstanding impact resistance, making it suitable for products that require durability and the ability to withstand frequent use or abuse.
  • Dimensional stability: ABS maintains its shape and size even when subjected to temperature fluctuations, ensuring consistent performance and appearance.
  • Ease of processing: With a lower melting temperature than polycarbonate, ABS is easier to mold and process, reducing manufacturing costs and time.
  • Surface quality: ABS can be easily colored, textured, and finished, allowing for the creation of aesthetically pleasing products with smooth surfaces.

These properties have made ABS a preferred material for numerous applications, such as:

  • Automotive components (interior trim, dashboard parts, wheel covers)
  • Toys and recreational products (LEGO bricks, sports equipment, gaming controllers)
  • Household appliances (vacuum cleaner housings, kitchen appliance parts)
  • Electrical enclosures and boxes
  • Pipes and fittings for plumbing and electrical systems

ABS’s impact resistance, dimensional stability, and ease of processing have contributed to its widespread use across various industries, making it a versatile and cost-effective material choice.

Polycarbonate vs. ABS: Key Differences

While both polycarbonate and ABS are popular thermoplastics, they have distinct differences that set them apart. Understanding these differences is crucial when deciding which material to use for a specific application. Let’s explore the key aspects that differentiate polycarbonate from ABS:

AspectPolycarbonate (PC)ABS
AdvantagesHigh strength, transparency, heat resistance, dimensional stabilityImpact resistance, ease of processing, cost-effective
DisadvantagesHigher cost, susceptible to certain chemicals, longer processing timesLower heat resistance, not transparent, less strong than PC
Advantages and Disadvantages of Polycarbonate (PC) and ABS

Strength and Durability

Polycarbonate is known for its superior strength and durability compared to ABS. PC has a higher tensile strength, meaning it can withstand greater loads before breaking. This makes polycarbonate an excellent choice for applications that require high structural integrity, such as safety equipment, load-bearing components, and products subjected to constant stress.

ABS, while not as strong as polycarbonate, still offers good strength and rigidity. It is a durable material that can withstand everyday wear and tear, making it suitable for a wide range of consumer products and applications.

Impact Resistance

When it comes to impact resistance, ABS has a slight edge over polycarbonate. ABS is known for its excellent impact strength, allowing it to absorb and dissipate energy from impacts without cracking or shattering. This property makes ABS ideal for products that may be subjected to drops, bumps, or other forms of impact, such as power tool housings, protective gear, and automotive parts.

Polycarbonate also has good impact resistance, but it may be more prone to cracking or shattering under high-impact conditions compared to ABS. However, PC’s impact resistance can be improved through the addition of impact modifiers or by creating blends with other materials, such as ABS.

Heat Resistance

Polycarbonate has a higher heat resistance compared to ABS. With a glass transition temperature of around 147°C (297°F), polycarbonate can maintain its mechanical properties and dimensional stability at elevated temperatures. This makes PC suitable for applications that require exposure to heat, such as electrical components, lighting fixtures, and automotive parts near the engine.

ABS, on the other hand, has a lower heat resistance, with a glass transition temperature of approximately 105°C (221°F). While ABS can withstand moderately high temperatures, it may start to soften, warp, or deform at temperatures above its glass transition point. This limitation should be considered when selecting ABS for applications that involve exposure to high heat.

Transparency and Aesthetics

One of the key advantages of polycarbonate over ABS is its excellent transparency. Polycarbonate is naturally clear, allowing for the creation of products with high optical clarity. This property makes PC ideal for applications that require transparency, such as automotive headlight lenses, protective visors, and display screens. Additionally, polycarbonate can be easily tinted or colored without sacrificing its transparency, offering designers a wide range of aesthetic possibilities.

ABS, in contrast, is an opaque material that cannot achieve the same level of transparency as polycarbonate. However, ABS can be easily colored and textured, allowing for the creation of visually appealing products with smooth, matte, or glossy finishes. This makes ABS a popular choice for applications where appearance and surface quality are important, such as consumer electronics, toys, and household appliances.

Chemical Resistance

Chemical TypePolycarbonate (PC)ABS
Weak AcidsGoodModerate
Strong AcidsSusceptibleSusceptible
AlkalisModerateModerate
Oils and GreasesGoodGood
AlcoholsGoodModerate
Aromatic HydrocarbonsSusceptibleSusceptible
Halogenated SolventsSusceptibleSusceptible
Chemical Resistance of Polycarbonate (PC) and ABS

Both polycarbonate and ABS offer some level of chemical resistance, but their performance varies depending on the specific chemicals involved.

Polycarbonate has good resistance to many chemicals, including dilute acids, oils, greases, and alcohols. However, PC is susceptible to certain solvents, such as acetone, which can cause stress cracking and degradation of the material. When exposed to these solvents, polycarbonate may experience a reduction in mechanical properties and transparency.

ABS, while not as chemically resistant as polycarbonate, still offers moderate resistance to a range of chemicals. It can withstand exposure to weak acids, alkalis, and some oils and greases. However, ABS is more susceptible to degradation by strong acids, aromatic hydrocarbons, and halogenated solvents.

When selecting between polycarbonate and ABS based on chemical resistance, it is essential to consider the specific chemicals that the product will be exposed to and consult with material experts or suppliers for guidance.

Processing and Manufacturability

ABS and polycarbonate differ in their processing characteristics and manufacturability. ABS is generally easier to process than polycarbonate due to its lower melting temperature and better flow properties. This allows for faster cycle times, lower energy consumption, and reduced manufacturing costs. ABS can be easily molded using injection molding, extrusion, and thermoforming processes, making it a versatile material for a wide range of applications.

Polycarbonate, on the other hand, requires higher processing temperatures and may present some molding challenges due to its high melt viscosity. This can lead to longer cycle times and increased energy consumption during manufacturing. However, polycarbonate’s superior mechanical properties and transparency often justify the additional processing requirements.

Cost Comparison

FactorPolycarbonate (PC)ABS
Raw Material CostHigherLower
Processing CostHigher (due to higher temperatures)Lower
Manufacturing Cycle TimeLongerShorter
Overall Cost for High Volume ProductionHigherLower
Cost Comparison Between Polycarbonate (PC) and ABS

When comparing the cost of polycarbonate and ABS, ABS is generally the more affordable option. The raw materials and processing costs for ABS are typically lower than those for polycarbonate, making it a cost-effective choice for many applications. This cost advantage has contributed to ABS’s widespread use in consumer products, toys, and household appliances.

Polycarbonate, while more expensive than ABS, offers superior properties such as strength, durability, heat resistance, and transparency. These enhanced properties often justify the higher cost of polycarbonate, especially in applications where performance and reliability are critical. The cost difference between polycarbonate and ABS should be evaluated in the context of the specific application requirements and the long-term benefits that polycarbonate’s superior properties may provide.

Polycarbonate and ABS Blends

In some cases, the best solution may be to combine the strengths of both polycarbonate and ABS by creating a blend of the two materials. Polycarbonate/ABS blends, often referred to as PC/ABS, offer a balance of properties that can be tailored to specific application requirements.

PC/ABS blends combine the impact resistance and processability of ABS with the strength, heat resistance, and transparency of polycarbonate. By adjusting the ratio of PC to ABS, manufacturers can create blends that optimize the desired properties for a given application. Some common benefits of PC/ABS blends include:

  • Improved impact resistance compared to pure polycarbonate
  • Higher strength and heat resistance compared to pure ABS
  • Better dimensional stability and reduced warpage compared to pure ABS
  • Enhanced processability and shorter cycle times compared to pure polycarbonate
  • Cost savings compared to using pure polycarbonate

PC/ABS blends find applications in various industries, such as:

ApplicationPreferred MaterialReason(s)
Automotive HeadlightsPolycarbonate (PC)High impact resistance, excellent transparency
Dashboard ComponentsABSGood impact resistance, ease of processing, lower cost
Mobile Phone CasesPolycarbonate (PC)High strength, excellent impact resistance, transparency for certain designs
Gaming ControllersABSExcellent impact resistance, ease of coloring and texturing
Medical DevicesPolycarbonate (PC)High strength, excellent durability, transparency
Household AppliancesABSCost-effective, good impact resistance, ease of processing
Safety ShieldsPolycarbonate (PC)High impact resistance, excellent transparency
Electrical EnclosuresABSGood dimensional stability, ease of processing, cost-effective
Comparison of Polycarbonate (PC) and ABS in Specific Applications
  • Automotive components (interior trim, body panels, instrument clusters)
  • Electronic devices (mobile phone cases, laptop housings, television frames)
  • Medical equipment (housings for diagnostic devices, surgical tool handles)
  • Sports equipment (helmets, protective gear)
  • Industrial components (power tool housings, machine guards)

By leveraging the synergistic properties of polycarbonate and ABS, PC/ABS blends offer a versatile and cost-effective solution for many demanding applications.

Choosing Between Polycarbonate and ABS

When deciding between polycarbonate and ABS for a specific application, several factors should be considered to ensure the best material choice. These factors include:

  1. Application requirements: Evaluate the specific performance requirements of your application, such as strength, impact resistance, heat resistance, transparency, and chemical resistance. Determine which material properties are most critical for the success of your product.
  2. Cost considerations: Assess the budget constraints for your project and consider the cost implications of using polycarbonate or ABS. While ABS is generally more affordable, the long-term benefits of polycarbonate’s superior properties may justify the higher initial cost in some cases.
  3. Manufacturing process: Consider the manufacturing processes available and the suitability of each material for those processes. ABS is easier to mold and process, while polycarbonate may require higher temperatures and longer cycle times.
  4. Environmental factors: Evaluate the environmental conditions your product will be exposed to, such as temperature fluctuations, humidity, UV radiation, and chemical exposure. Choose the material that can withstand these conditions and maintain its properties over the intended lifespan of the product.
  5. Sustainability goals: If sustainability is a key concern for your project, consider the environmental impact of each material. Both polycarbonate and ABS can be recycled, but the recycling process and the availability of recycling facilities may vary depending on the region and the specific grade of the material.

When in doubt, consult with material experts, suppliers, or industry professionals who can provide guidance and recommendations based on your specific application needs. They can help you navigate the trade-offs between polycarbonate and ABS and suggest the most suitable material or blend for your project.

Conclusion

In the battle between polycarbonate and ABS, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each material has its own set of strengths and weaknesses that make it suitable for different applications. Polycarbonate excels in strength, durability, heat resistance, and transparency, while ABS offers excellent impact resistance, ease of processing, and cost-effectiveness.

Understanding the key differences between these two materials is crucial for making informed decisions when selecting the right plastic for your product. By considering factors such as application requirements, cost, manufacturing process, environmental conditions, and sustainability goals, you can choose the material that best aligns with your needs.

In some cases, the optimal solution may be to use a polycarbonate/ABS blend that combines the desirable properties of both materials. These blends offer a balance of strength, impact resistance, processability, and cost, making them a versatile choice for a wide range of applications.

Ultimately, the choice between polycarbonate, ABS, or a PC/ABS blend depends on the specific demands of your project. By carefully evaluating your requirements and consulting with material experts, you can select the best plastic material to ensure the success and longevity of your products.

This article presented Thermoplastic Rubber (TPR), explaining what it is and discussing its different attributes. To learn more about Thermoplastic Rubber (TPR) how UTM can assist with your Thermoplastic Rubber (TPR)requirements, get in touch with UTM

UTM offers a comprehensive range of manufacturing capabilities and value-added services to meet all your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to explore our offerings.

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