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What Is Cellulose Acetate Butyrate?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2014
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Cellulose acetate butyrate is a thermoplastic with many common uses from trim for automobiles to tool handles, pens, blister packaging, and more. Since it is a thermoplastic, this substance can be melted and remolded into new shapes without altering its molecular structure. It can be sawed, drilled, and punched. It is a relatively tough plastic that can be produced in clear form or a wide variety of translucent or opaque tints and colors.

Other common names for cellulose acetate butyrate are CAB or just butyrate. It is a plastic that is vulnerable to damage from ketones or alcohols due to its soft, pliable nature, which allows it to be stretched up to 60% of its original length before it breaks. Polymers CAB tend to be more expensive than their precursor chemical compound of cellulose acetate because additional steps in producing it are necessary. However, all cellulose acetate butyrate is derived from cellulose acetate, which itself has widespread use as a photographic film base, a component of glues, and more.

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One of the unique features of cellulose acetate butyrate is its ultraviolet resistance, which gives it applications where high surface gloss is needed, such as in the production of lacquers for outdoor surfaces, for lenses, and for various forms of plastic film. Since it is formed by reacting esters of cellulose with acetic acid and butyric acid, this also gives it low moisture absorption and an extremely high level of impact strength. It is produced by such a variety of companies that it has acquired several trade names over the years, including Tenite®, Uvex®, Excelon®, and Spartech®.

Though alkalis, acetones in paint remover, and alcohols can break down the chemical structure of cellulose acetate butyrate, it is otherwise resistant to common household chemicals. The versatile and inert properties of the compound also make it useful for the manufacture of many types of toys and sporting goods. It is widespread as well because it replaced common cellulose nitrate compounds, which were known to be highly flammable and to degrade over time more than CAB does.

Organic esters such as cellulose acetate are considered to be the important in industry because of their broad application to the production of various fibers and plastics. They are commonly prepared in multi-ton quantities and have been produced since 1865. The compounds found their first widespread application during World War I, when they began to replace highly flammable cellulose nitrate coatings on aircraft wings and bodies. As of the late 1980s, the United States and Canada were producing about 438,000 tons of cellulose acetate annually; the European Union nations of Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, and the UK around 125,000 tons; and Japan around 112,000 tons of the chemical compound and its derivatives.

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