Why eco-material cables are the next big thing

Eco-material cables, or eco-cables, are the next generation in control cabling. Poised to replace standard polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cables, eco-cables are becoming more and more popular due to the performance and environmental benefits they provide.               

There are, however, some existing barriers to widespread adoption. The additional cost factor with these new cables may deter some companies from purchasing. Many engineers are also slow to adopt new technologies, and traditionally use what they know and are comfortable with. The design, performance and environmental benefits of eco-cables are too substantial to ignore, and with a better understanding of the applications of eco-cables, they may soon become the connector standard.

Eco-material cables are designed to enhance performance and sustainability. Using a modified polyphenylene ether (mPPE) thermoplastic, jacketing and insulation, eco-cables are smaller and lighter than PVC cables. mPPE eco-cables are up to 47% smaller and are capable of handling temperature extremes of -50°C. These features improve cable performance, all within a smaller and more efficient package.

The 1.03 specific gravity of mPPE is 25-to-40% lower than other insulation materials. These include polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene and cross-linked polyethylene. The low specific gravity of mPPE delivers up to 65% reduced weight with today’s eco-material cables. The reduced wall thickness of mPPE thermoplastic is made possible by its superior dielectric properties. Though thinner and more lightweight, eco-material cables can maintain the same electrical properties of a thicker PVC control cable.

In fact, mPPE is mechanically stronger than a PVC cable, offering up to 10 times more abrasion resistance than the standard polyvinyl chloride plastic. Despite an exceptional level of durability, eco-material cables can maintain anywhere between 5-to-8 times bend radii. Striking a balance between adaptability and reliability is critical to phasing out standard cables for eco-cables. Performance is uncompromised when replacing standard connectors with eco-material ones. Arguably, performance is enhanced when switching to eco-cables, and the design process becomes faster and simpler.

Eco-material cables are also available in polyolefin, plenum-rated fluoropolymer and plenum-rated polymer plastics. The thermoplastic jackets and insulators are flame-retardant. Similar to mPPE-based eco-cables, the smaller outside diameter of plenum-rated eco-cables permit more cables per conduit than a typical connector. The extreme storage, installation and operation temperatures maximize performance and mirror mPPE eco-material cables, reaching up to 60°C in temperature thresholds.

In addition to design and performance benefits, eco-cables offer unparalleled environmental benefits compared to other cable types. To begin with, they are 100% recyclable and are available in post-consumer material packaging. Eco-cables contain no halogens such as fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine and astatine – elements that can reach dangerous levels of toxicity through repeated exposure. Eco-cables are also free of phthalates – a common plasticizer that easily leaches and evaporates into the atmosphere in standard PVC cables from a lack of a chemical bond. Also absent from eco-material cables are heavy metals. Plenum-rated eco-material cables in particular offer low smoke CMP/FPLP construction. The thermoplastic insulation and jacketing of mPPE eco-cables can uniquely and easily be recycled. Many meet the Restriction of Hazardous Substance (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives’ requirements for the elimination of hazardous substances and recyclability.

The most important and distinct environmental benefit of eco-material cables is the reduction of outgassing. Outgassing is the release of dangerous chemicals into the air. Polyvinyl chloride is an extremely harmful plastic. With additives like mercury, dioxin and phthalate, the toxins in PVC can easily escape and cause serious damage to consumers, altering hormone levels and causing birth defects. Certain eco-cables have proven to lower outgassing by up to 91% when compared to standard PVC cables.

With so many design, performance and environmental benefits, why are engineers and manufacturers reluctant to integrate eco-cables into their production processes? Understanding the use cases, availability and options of eco-cables may deter some of that hesitation.

Eco-cables are intended for use in a wide variety of applications. In medical, rapid transit, industrial and commercial fields where safety is a concern, eco-cables are an optimal fit. In any instance where protection of equipment is a concern, eco-materials are a smart choice as well.

With the growing range of eco-cables, eco-cable manufacturers and eco-cable distributors, there are options available in most sizes and up to 130 constructions. Put-ups are as small as 100 feet in length on the cable’s spool or pull box, leaving no design project out of reach. In addition to RoHS and WEEE compliance, many eco-material cables are compliant with Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) standards in the European Union. Worldwide, eco-cables maintain a standard of quality that do not compromise the final product or function.

In addition to meeting performance and sustainability standards, eco-cables are continuing to excel in safety. Many of the same RoHS and REACH compliant eco-material cables are also suitable for use in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) situations. For example, one prominent NFPA application for eco-cables is NFPA code 79: the electrical standard for industrial machinery in which machines must operate from a nominal voltage of 600 volts or less. Operators, equipment, facilities and works-in-progress are safeguarded from fire and electrical hazard. Eco-cable products are also certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) the worldwide engineering standard for safety. With foil-, braid- and unshielded options, there is an eco-material cable to handle any electrical environment.

Whatever the design project, eco-cables are a safe and reliable alternative to PVC-based control cable. Eco-material cables exceed PVC standards by offering more flexibility, portability and sustainability. Consumers and manufacturers both benefit from the incorporation of eco-cables into the production process. As more engineers replace PVC with mPPE or plenum-rated eco-material cables, more cable options will become available to fit the project needs of every industry. Soon eco-cables will become the components standard we all expect.

About the Author:

Rob Toenies is the product manager at Newark element14, a division of Premier Farnell, plc. Mr. Toenies is responsible for the management of interconnect and wire management products. He provides product, services and solutions support to the community at element14, an award-winning space in which design engineers can share project concepts with 200,000 members. Mr. Toenies has been with Newark element14 since 1997 and brings a wealth of electronic components industry experience to the position.