Phenolic vs Epoxy Lab Work Surfaces: Is Phenolic a Suitable Alternative to Epoxy?
If you’ve done any amount of research into lab work surface materials (and specifically, epoxy vs phenolic), then you know there is already an abundance of content available on the topic – and you’re probably still not sure what to think. It’s no wonder there is so much confusion on the topic; much of the information is biased, inaccurate, or simply unhelpful.
In contrast, this article aims to offer objective, accurate, and relevant information to assist lab planners. It should be acknowledged upfront that as a global leader in high-pressure laminates, Fundermax is certainly partial to the benefits of phenolic panels. However, Fundermax also recognizes that in order to provide any helpful measure of comparison between lab-grade phenolic and other lab work surface materials, they must remain familiar with other options lab planners will consider in their search for the best lab-grade work surface.
Fundermax recognizes that anyone planning a lab is likely comparing epoxy and phenolic as possible laboratory work surfaces. Therefore, this article will evaluate lab-grade epoxy vs phenolic, and specifically, epoxy vs Fundermax Max Resistance2 lab work surfaces. The evaluation will include the unique features as well as the shared strengths of lab-grade phenolic work surfaces and lab-grade epoxy work surfaces.
If you're looking for a particular section, feel free to utilize our table of content to jump.
- How are Epoxy Work Surfaces Made?
- How are Phenolic Work Surfaces Made?
- Phenolic vs Epoxy: Key Considerations
- What is the Best Lab Grade Work Surface?
How are Epoxy Work Surfaces Made?
Depending on the manufacturer, epoxy lab surfaces contain about 10-12% epoxy resin and 70-78% filler, which is usually a silica. There is one manufacturer that also has up to 10% recycled content, which is recycled glass. The formulation of lab-grade epoxy also includes: a catalyst, a pigment, and a hardener such as phthalic anhydride. (The pigment is important to note because it is part of the formulation; this means every color, potentially, has a slightly different formula. Therefore, it’s important to review individual test data for any color you have in mind.)
Lab-grade epoxy is a molded product; this means the mixture is poured into molds and cured under very high heat. Next, there is a “post cure'' as it cools; this controlled cooling is required to prevent warping. The thinner the slab, the more warpage you tend to get. When epoxy resin slabs come out of the oven, they have a degree of flexibility until cooled. Most epoxy manufacturers use an open mold, so the bottom of the mold is the actual top, hence the underside (which you can see if using as shelving) quite often has pitting. Taking that into consideration, it's really a one-sided product.
How are Phenolic Work Surfaces Made?
Phenolic panels begin with layers of kraft paper that have been impregnated with thermosetting resins. Then, outer decorative layers are added, and the stack is cured and compressed using high pressure and heat following the EN428 CSG process. This results in solid, compact architectural boards.
Like epoxy, panel content from different manufacturers can vary. Specifically, Fundermax lab-grade phenolic panels contain a core of 100% post-consumer recycled product resulting in 65% recycled content in the finished panels. Phenolic panels also maintain the same chemical formulation regardless of color because the color is added as a decor layer (rather than in the chemical formula).
Overall, there are two significant differences you’ll find in the composition of phenolic materials: core material and surface technology.
Phenolic panels can have a kraft paper core, a cellulose fiber core, or a recycled kraft paper core. [As mentioned above, Fundermax lab-grade phenolic panels (Max Resistance2) contain a core of 100% post-consumer recycled product.] Surface technology, however, is the biggest difference you will find between different types of phenolics.
The options are:
Melamine surface technology
Electron Beam Cured (EBC), which usually also includes a thin layer of acrylic
IP surface, an extra thick acrylate layer that is double-hardened
RE surface, which is a polyurethane, double-hardened, double-cured surface.
Note that in phenolics, different surface technologies offer different results and different resistance. This is an important distinction and is why, rather than discussing epoxy vs phenolic in very general terms, it is much more helpful to compare lab-grade epoxy to a consistent type of lab-grade phenolic panel.
Inconsistent comparisons lead to confusion (such as comparing epoxy to a phenolic with a melamine surface on some points, an EBC surface on others, etc.). Therefore, this article will consider lab-grade epoxy vs Fundermax lab-grade phenolic with RE surface technology. Be on the lookout for a future article comparing the different surface technologies in phenolic panels, though.
Phenolic vs Epoxy: Key Considerations
As mentioned above, when reviewing test data, ensure that you consider individual test data for the appropriate color (as with lab-grade epoxy) and/or surface technology (as with lab-grade phenolic). The following test data compares lab-grade epoxy and lab-grade phenolic with RE surface technology.
Lab-grade phenolic and lab-grade epoxy work surfaces can both offer good to excellent heat resistance. Some epoxy surfaces will start scorching around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and others at approximately 500 degrees; and although many non-lab-grade phenolics on the market cannot withstand high heat loads or an open flame, phenolic lab work surfaces with RE surface technology can handle an open flame and much higher heat loads due to the polyurethane integrated surface technology.
When looking for the best and most durable work surface for your specific lab, it’s important to remember that extremely high heat loads – and specifically metal tongs and tools – can damage any surface! For example, in a school setting that still uses Bunsen burners, in order to avoid possible malicious damage, a ceramic plate is a better option than even epoxy or phenolic. A detailed look at heat resistance, and pertinent test data, can be found in this recent blog post.
Also related to temperature, it is commonly known that epoxy is relatively brittle and will crack under extreme changes in temperature (this is known as thermal shock), and will also crack when exposed to extreme cold (like dry ice). Lab-grade phenolic is far more forgiving in these conditions.
Work Surface Weight
Let’s compare the weight of lab-grade epoxy vs Fundermax lab-grade phenolic. One-inch epoxy weighs about 11.5 pounds per square foot; one-inch lab-grade Fundermax panels weigh approximately 7 pounds per square foot. Weight increases floor loading, freight costs, installation costs, etc., so the lighter weight material is usually the better option.
The possible exception has to do with vibration. This doesn’t impact fixed casework, but for modular systems, if anti-vibration is critical to your lab activities, you will need to consider the use of vibration pads or even Balance Tables. Balance Tables can be created from phenolic or epoxy; however, it is common to see 2”+ thick epoxy slabs used for these.
When choosing a work surface for a modular system, however, it’s valuable to consider why the lab has specified modular furniture. If it is because the units are to be moved, a lighter-weight surface may be more advantageous. Enabling users to safely move the furniture gives much greater flexibility.
Impact and Scratch Resistance
On the Rockwell Hardness scale, an epoxy lab surface is harder than a phenolic lab surface. However, this is important to view in context: although the surface is harder, it is actually less impact resistant. Note that the edges of epoxy can crack and chip on impact, and it is also difficult to repair.
On the other hand, a phenolic panel will not damage as easily, but if it does, it is easy to repair it in most situations (simply using a 220 grit sandpaper).
Regarding scratch resistance, there isn’t a directly comparable test between epoxy and phenolic work surfaces. However, if you look at the EN438 test using the diamond tip with weights, as a general rule of thumb, phenolic will give you 25% more scratch resistance than epoxy. Another consideration is marring of the surface; generally speaking, the surface appearance of epoxy is also more prone to marring than phenolic.
It’s important to acknowledge, though, that any type of work surface can be scratched, so special care must be taken even with the best lab grade work surface, whether you’ve chosen phenolic or epoxy.
Chemical Resistance and Staining
Chemical resistance in wet labs is a major consideration. Lab-grade epoxy and lab-grade phenolic surfaces like those with Fundermax RE surface technology are very comparable when it comes to chemical resistance. The exception to this is lab-grade phenolics (including those with RE surfaces such as Fundermax Max Resistance2) that offer better resistance to some specific chemicals.
For example, many labs use acetone for cleaning, and acetone, under the SEFA 3 chemical resistance test, will score a one on epoxy but will score zero on most lab-grade phenolics. (For a full chemical resistance comparison see this recent blog post.) Staining from chlorites and chlorines is another instance; over time, chlorine stains a black epoxy work surface with white spots. (Chlorines do not impact a lab-grade phenolic surface.) It is important to note, however, that when using any type of bleach, ALL surfaces should then be cleaned off with pure/distilled water to avoid a build-up on the surface.
As mentioned above, the surface appearance of epoxy is more prone to changes than phenolic, and this includes UV ray impacts. Epoxy simply is not known for its UV resistance. White epoxy will yellow, and black epoxy will fade, even from natural daylight exposure through a window. Although this change in appearance does not break down the epoxy’s performance, it’s an important consideration in evaluating the longevity of a lab’s design. In contrast, phenolic surfaces such as the RE and the IP have incredibly high levels of UV resistance. The EBC surface technology offers a very good level of UV resistance as well.
Both lab-grade epoxy and phenolics are non-porous and moisture-resistant, making them equally cleanable. (Note, however, the differences regarding acetone and chlorines that were covered above.)
As more and more testing and analytical equipment is used in the lab, static buildup can and will impact test results. Therefore, consideration should be made for materials with anti-static properties. For instance, Fundermax Max Resistance2 tests between 109-1012 Ohms, classifying it as anti-static. Where ESD considerations are required and there is a need for anti-static, epoxy surfaces cannot be used.
By workability, we mean how easy it is to install and fabricate the work surface. Epoxy, because it's a man-made stone, is much tougher to fabricate, and specialist tooling (including diamond tip) is required. Also with epoxy, because it's manufactured using an open cast mold, there are unavoidable differences in the material’s thickness which impacts installation. Phenolic has a much tighter tolerance because it's a pressed product.
Also, in terms of fabricating and customizing, because most labs are customized, workability is a huge factor. With phenolic panels, wood-based tooling can be utilized, onsite changes can be made, it's much easier to cut, and it's much easier to drill. Recall, too, that you can just finish the edges with 220 grit sandpaper and clean it up with basic chemicals. However, quite often with epoxy, if you need a lot of reconfigurations and because of its silica content, it may need to go back to the fabricator or be replaced with a new piece.
Historically, epoxy has had significantly longer lead times than phenolic in terms of fabrication, because there are fewer epoxy fabricators available. Epoxy lab surface lead time is usually between 6 to 18 weeks.
Since there are more phenolic panel manufacturers available, there are phenolics manufactured onshore as well as those manufactured offshore and stored or stocked. This means lead time tends to be much quicker and easier. Plus, with the lab grade phenolics, there are highly qualified lab work surface fabricators across the country. For Fundermax, strategic fabricators that have years of experience in working within the lab sector are available. Lead time for phenolic lab work surfaces is generally between 2 to 6 weeks.
If you compare lab-grade epoxy installed costs to lab-grade phenolic installed costs, there is a significant price difference. Installed, epoxy is much more expensive. Just considering materials, lab-grade white epoxy is generally 50% more expensive than lab-grade black epoxy. Lab-grade white color-through phenolic is only about 20% more expensive than lab-grade black phenolic. So, there is a difference in material costs even before the installed cost, and it is much less expensive to install phenolic lab surfaces.
Simply put, phenolic lab work surfaces are more sustainable than lab-grade epoxy. Depending on the manufacturer, epoxy is about 70-78% silica-based and 10-12% epoxy resin – making it extremely difficult to recycle. Many assume that it’s also difficult to recycle phenolic, but that’s actually not the case. Phenolic can be used as fuel for biomass energy plants, and as more and more biomass plants are being put into the US market, it provides a good source of energy.
Another important consideration regarding sustainability is whether the manufacturing process is environmentally friendly. This will of course vary by manufacturer, and it’s worth noting that Fundermax is currently the ONLY manufacturer sustainably sourcing and sustainably manufacturing lab-grade phenolics. (Refer to this article for more detail about the low GWP of lab-grade phenolics and sustainable lab design.)
The epoxy process is not particularly environmentally friendly; first because of the raw materials that are utilized, and second, because of the manufacturing process itself. (From a layman's perspective, it’s comparable to the steel industry in terms of high heat, etc.)
Consider too embodied carbon and longevity – in both situations, phenolic provides higher benefits giving rise to being a more sustainable material. Use of documents such as EPDs (Environmental Product Declaration) can also depict details on the sustainability and the GWP (Global Warming Potential), and thus, the embodied carbon. (As mentioned above).
Warranties offered for phenolic and epoxy lab surfaces are very comparable. Manufacturers of epoxy and phenolic both offer a ten-year standard warranty.
So, What is the Best Lab Grade Work Surface?
All things considered, which material really is the best lab grade work surface? The honest answer is: It depends.
If your top priorities include sustainability, chemical resistance, longevity, and price, then phenolic with RE technology is your answer. If your lab requires a molded product, then your answer is epoxy. However, if your main consideration is overall durability, the materials are pretty much comparable.
Can’t decide? It’s important to note that the two materials actually work very well together; so, consider that you may not need to choose one exclusively over the other. Perhaps for your lab’s needs, the materials can work in partnership? For instance, epoxy sinks work incredibly well with phenolic work surfaces – and are color matched too!
As you plan your lab and evaluate work surface materials, be sure to include the expert insight available from the manufacturer. The Fundermax Sales Specialists are committed to helping planners, designers, and architects identify the best material for their specific needs. Contact Fundermax today to see if lab-grade phenolic is the right work surface for your needs.