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Forensic polymer engineering

Forensic polymer engineering is the study of failure in polymeric products. The topic includes the fracture of plastic products, or any other reason why such a product fails in service, or fails to meet its specification. The subject focuses on the material evidence from crime or accident scenes, seeking defects in those materials that might explain why an accident occurred, or the source of a specific material to identify a criminal. Many analytical methods used for polymer identification may be used in investigations, the exact set being determined by the nature of the polymer in question, be it thermoset, thermoplastic, elastomeric or composite in nature.

One aspect is the analysis of trace evidence such as skid marks on exposed surfaces, where contact between dissimilar materials leaves material traces of one left on the other. Provided the traces can be analyzed successfully, then an accident or crime can often be reconstructed.

Thermoplastics can be analysed using infra-red spectroscopy, ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and the environmental scanning electron microscope. Failed samples can either be dissolved in a suitable solvent and examined directly (UV, IR and NMR spectroscopy) or be a thin film cast from solvent or cut using microtomy from the solid product. Infra-red spectrosocpy is especially useful for assessing oxidation of polymers, such as the polymer degradation caused by faulty injection moulding. The spectrum shows the characteristic carbonyl group produced by oxidation of polypropylene, which made the product brittle. It was a critical part of a crutch, and when it failed, the user fell and injured herself very seriously. The spectrum was obtained from a thin film cast from a solution of a sample of the plastic taken from the failed forearm crutch.

  • Peter R Lewis and Sarah Hainsworth, Fuel Line Failure from stress corrosion cracking, Engineering Failure Analysis,13 (2006) 946-962.
  • Lewis, Peter Rhys, Reynolds, K, Gagg, C, Forensic Materials Engineering: Case studies, CRC Press (2004).
  • Wright, D.C., Environmental Stress Cracking of Plastics RAPRA (2001).
  • Ezrin, Meyer, Plastics Failure Guide: Cause and Prevention, Hanser-SPE (1996).
  • Lewis, Peter Rhys, Forensic Polymer Engineering: Why polymer products fail in service, 2nd Edition, Elsevier-Woodhead (2016).


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