Influence of elastomeric seal plate surface chemistry on interface integrity in biofouling-prone systems: Evaluation of a hydrophobic "easy-release" silicone-epoxy coating for maintaining water seal integrity of a sliding neoprene/steel interface
Andolina, Vincent L.
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The scientific hypothesis of this work is that modulation of the properties of hard materials to exhibit abrasion-reducing and low-energy surfaces will extend the functional lifetimes of elastomeric seals pressed against them in abrasive underwater systems. The initial motivation of this work was to correct a problem noted in the leaking of seals at major hydropower generating facilities subject to fouling by abrasive zebra mussel shells and extensive corrosion. Similar biofouling-influenced problems can develop at seals in medical devices and appliances from regulators in anesthetic machines and SCUBA diving oxygen supply units to autoclave door seals, injection syringe gaskets, medical pumps, drug delivery components, and feeding devices, as well as in food handling equipment like pasteurizers and transfer lines. Maritime and many other heavy industrial seal interfaces could also benefit from this coating system. Little prior work has been done to elucidate the relationship of seal plate surface properties to the friction and wear of elastomeric seals during sliding contacts of these articulating materials, or to examine the secondary influence of mineralized debris within the contacting interfaces. This investigation utilized the seal materials relevant to the hydropower application—neoprene elastomer against carbon steel—with and without the application of a silicone-epoxy coating (Wearlon ® 2020.98) selected for its wear-resistance, hydrophobicity, and "easy-release" capabilities against biological fouling debris present in actual field use. Analytical techniques applied to these materials before and after wear-producing processes included comprehensive Contact Angle measurements for Critical Surface Tension (CA-CST) determination, Scanning Electron Microscopic inspections, together with Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) and X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) measurements for determination of surface texture and inorganic composition, Multiple Attenuated Internal Reflection (MAIR-IR) and Microscopic Infrared Spectroscopy for organic surface compositional details, light microscopy for wear area quantification, and profilometry for surface roughness estimation and wear depth quantification. Pin-on-disc dynamic Coefficient of Friction (CoF) measurements provided data relevant to forecasts of seal integrity in dry, wet and biofouling-influenced sliding contact. Actual wear of neoprene seal material against uncoated and coated steel surfaces, wet and dry, was monitored after both rotary and linear cyclic wear testing, demonstrating significant reductions in elastomer wear areas and depths (and resultant volumes) when the coating was present. Coating the steel eliminated a 270% increase in neoprene surface area wear and an 11-fold increase in seal abrasive volume loss associated with underwater rusting in rotary experiments. Linear testing results confirm coating efficacy by reducing wear area in both loading regimes by about half. No coating delamination was observed, apparently due to a differential distribution of silicone and epoxy ingredients at the air-exposed vs. steel-bonded interfaces demonstrated by IR and EDS methods. Frictional testing revealed higher Coefficients of Friction (CoF) associated with the low-speed sliding of Neoprene over coated rather than uncoated steel surfaces in a wet environment, indicating better potential seal adhesion between the hydrophobic elastomer and coating than between the elastomer and intrinsically hydrophilic uncoated steel. When zebra mussel biofouling debris was present in the articulating joints, CoF was reduced as a result of a water channel path produced between the articulating surfaces by the retained biological matter. Easier release of the biofouling from the low-CST coated surfaces restored the seal integrity more rapidly with further water rinsing. Rapid sliding diminished these biofouling-related differences, but revealed a significant advantage in reducing the CoF of the elastomer-on-coating couples to less than 50% of the elastomer-on-steel couples in all conditions. These consolidated results indicate that general improvements in maintenance of seal integrity and functional lifetimes for other sliding joints exposed to potentially abrasive biofouling media can be obtained by coating the more-rigid seal-plate surfaces with low-CST, hydrophobic, wear-resistant materials such as the silicone-epoxy system characterized here.