Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate: Which Material is Best?

Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate: Which Material is Best?

March 24, 2015

Two of the most frequently used transparent plastics, Acrylic and Polycarbonate are often confused to be one in the same. While they share similar characteristics, these two materials are quite different in certain areas.

Similarities in Acrylic and Polycarbonate

Both display materials are lightweight, roughly half the weight of glass. They also both exhibit high clarity, meaning that they're easy to see through.

Both Acrylic and Polycarbonate are easy to clean, but they can scratc. Cleaning items like wool rags and paper towels - anything with an abrasive surface, should be avoided. Using a microfibre or 100% cotton cloth works delightfully.

Acrylic and Polycarbonate are weather resistant. As temperatures fluctuate, they expand and contract, with no material damage like shrinking or warping.

In our display case fabrication world, both Acrylic and Polycarbonate can be cut with conventional tools like routers and saws. They're both very easy materials to work with.

Where Acrylic and Polycarbonate Differ

Despite their similarities, Acrylic and Polycarbonate couldn't be more different. Here are some items of note:

Acrylic & Polycarbonate in the Manufacturing Process

First, the boring stuff.

Acrylic plastic polymers are formed in a process called bulk polymerization. Depending on the thickness and shape of Acrylic required, either batch cell or continous method processing is used to form the plastic.

Polycarbonate has a different process. It's made with Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phosgene. There are a few ways to actually create Polycarbonate - one can use free radical polymerization, for example. One of the advantages of Polycarbonate is that it's a thermoplastic, meaning it can be molded while hot. After it cools, it cannot easily melt and cannot be molded.

Now, the fun stuff.

Acrylic can be used within a huge range of temperatures. -30 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

Polycarbonate can handle even hotter temperatures, up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. It's also resistant to chemicals like gasoline and most acids.

When it comes to drilling, Polycarbonate wins out. It can take drilled holes with a standard drill bit, even if they're drilled close to an edge. Acrylic is more brittle and will usually crack if you're not using a special drill bit, or if you drill too close to an edge.

Strength & Durability of Acrylic & Polycarbonate

Both half the weight of glass, Acrylic and Polycarbonate are much stronger than glass.

But at 250 times the impact resistance of glass, Polycarbonate is much stronger than its Acrylic counterpart, only 17 times as strong as glass.

Want to see a cool video of Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate in the field?

Polycarbonate is much stronger.

Because it's less rigid than Acrylic, Polycarbonate handles material stress more efficiently and has higher impact-resistance. It can actually be purchased in varying degrees of flexibility.

Acrylic is more likely to chip, and it's also slightly more flammable than Polycarbonate, burning slowly and not recommended to be used in an area where flames are present or highly likely. 

Price of Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate

As you might imagine, Polycarbonate is more expensive than Acrylic. While it depends on the final product and volume, Polycarbonate is generally 30-40% more expensive than Acrylic.

Common Applications of Acrylic & Polycarbonate

Using Acrylic

  • Fish tanks, reptile and other animal enclosures
  • Retail point of purchase (or product) displays
  • Hockey rink glass 
  • Motorcycle helmet visors

Using Polycarbonate

  • Transparent face-guard visors for hockey and football players
  • Race car windows
  • Eyeglass lenses, safety glasses and other lighting lenses
  • Computers
  • Riot shields and visors
  • Bullet-proof glass

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