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A new worktop to watch

Nick Carter tests a laboratory surface whose price and potential could prove a boon once it passes a key safety test.

Diamik is an established furniture manufacturer with a good reputation for supplying the educational sector, so a new revolutionary material for laboratory worktops to the UK is bound to arouse interest. The Swanstone 6mm surface was officially announced by Diamik earlier this year, and was exhibited at the Education Show in March. Dr John Trigg at Tomlinscote School, Surrey, has been using it in a domestic science area since the end of last year, and, overall, he is impressed with the surface.

Swanstone is being hailed as the next generation of solid surface material because of its strength and lower cost. Solid surface materials normally have to be produced in 13mm thickness for worktops in order to achieve the necessary strength, and more material means more money. But Swanstone, new to the British education market, can be produced in 6mm because it incorporates special reinforced fibres. According to UKimporter Sylmar Technology, this makes Swanstone five times stronger than other 13mm thick polyesters and acrylic materials. And Swanstone is cheaper because it is thinner, so less material is required in the construction of worktops.

Diamik's new venture gives the school purchaser more choice. It offers a large range of colours and easy maintenance, and is very strong. If severe damage to the surface occurs, the teacher or technician can easily restore Swanstone to a near-perfect finish by using the renovation kit. The plastic mixture is simply placed on the damaged area, left to harden and sanded off. The surface is like new.

The Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services has not yet tested Swanstone for school laboratories, but hopes to be able to report on it to its subscribers soon. The tests listed in the Swanstone sales literature are based on American experience which, for example, assumes that spoilage is wiped off as soon as it happens.

The UK method of testing allows the chemical to remain for a period of time, normally under a piece of glass to simulate usage. It is quite likely that in a school situation chemicals do make contact with the worktop, with beakers on top of the spillage, and the beakers will amplify the stain effect and result in "rings" on the surface. Swanstone may, like many other surfaces, stain with chemicals in the school lab, but like most solid grade materials it can be cleaned with a kitchen abrasive cleaning agent.

I have one concern about Swanstone, however, which is its fire classification. All the other solid materials on the market are UK Fire Rated (BS 476) as Class 1. This new material is also listed as Class 1 in the sales information, but under US testing procedures.

As an ad hoc experiment, I subjected the surface of the new Swanstone material to a butane flame to see how it would react to deliberate misuse by pupils. After 60 seconds a small flame was generated but it went out a second after the heat source was removed. Like other materials on the market, Swanstone stood up well to the test.

I then subjected the edge of a 6mm sample of Swanstone, as supplied by Sylmar, to the heat of a butane burner an unlikely event in many schools, but similar to unreasonable use by a determined pupil. This sample, which Sylmar said was the latest formula of Swanstone currently being marketed to schools, caught fire in 30 seconds and stayed alight for five seconds. After 40 seconds it continued to burn for 90 seconds, at which point owing to the black smoke I threw it out of the door. I did the same to alternative surfaces Surell, Tessaro, Polyrey and Corian for 60 seconds and nothing happened.

I did the same test with 6mm-thick Iroko which also kept burning after 30 seconds, but being wood did not give off the same acrid fumes. Iroko hardwood worktops are in many of our older school labs, but schools know the limitations of hard woods for laboratory work surfaces and adjust their usage accordingly. With Swanstone looking very similar to other solid grade products on the market, they may think this new material will react in the same way, which it does not. On this basis I would only use Swanstone in low-risk areas.

Sylmar offered a possible reason why the material was more susceptible to a flame. When the material is cut not an everyday event the fibres which are in it to strengthen it are exposed, thus allowing the flame to light the edge. Clearly more research is needed fast.

When I expressed my doubts about the fire standards to Diamik, I was invited to Sylmar Technology's warehouse to conduct tests. It emerged that there is also an earlier formula of Swanstone which, when tested, caught fire in 20 seconds and continued to burn once the heat source was taken away. It is impossible to tell the new formula from the old one just by looking. So schools which had installations completed before this month would be well advised, if they are in high-risk areas, to seek written confirmation that the Swanstone they have installed is made from the new formula and that it passes BS 476 Class 1.

Once Swanstone has attained the UK Class 1 Fire Rating, it will be a force to be reckoned with, and the education sector will be thanking Diamik for triggering a price reduction among its competitors. At the moment, I would see this material as very useful in areas such as food technology, physics and biology, but not in high risk areas such as chemistry and general science.

Nick Carter is formerly principal furniture designer for the Department for Education and is now a freelance educational consultant.

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