Priority for growth is in South-east Asia
By Liz White
The hydrochlorofluorocarbon blowing agent HCFC-141b is still the most widely used foaming agent worldwide, according to Christoph Meurer, global sales and marketing manager for Solvay’s blowing agents.
Meurer said this is despite the fact that HCFC-141b has already been phased out in Europe under Montreal Protocol rules, and is being gradually eliminated globally.
Solvay still makes HCFC-141b, although in much smaller amounts than before, Meurer stressed.
The Belgian chemicals group exports it to those countries, mostly developing ones, still permitted to use the material, Meurer explained, in a 7 Sept interview during the UTECH Asia/PU China 2011 event in Shanghai, China.
He noted that there is still a large market for HCFC-141b, with China the biggest user and production base.
Solvay’s offerings for the polyurethanes sector are foam blowing agents and brominated fire retardants.
At present, Solvay’s hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) blowing agent range is made only in Europe, said Meurer. The range consists of three hydrofluorocarbon grades – pure HFC-365mfc and two blends with HFC-227ea in two ratios, serving different segments.
The company also has two brominated FRs, which are reactive polyols, one for rigid PU foams and one mainly for one-component foams, with some use in PU.
Solvay views PU as one of its key industries. “For PU in insulation, the way we are setting our strategy involves following the megatrends — including the need for energy efficiency, and hence insulation,” Meurer said.
Blowing agents are part of the fluorinated products business and now come under speciality chemicals, the headquarters of which has relocated to Seoul, South Korea.
This sets the scene for the strategy in Asia — where the business has its largest share now. It “sends a message to the market about blowing agents,” and Solvay’s priority for their growth, which is now in China and South-east Asia, said Meurer.
Solvay is “certainly looking at different chemistries for future blowing agents, I can safely say that,” Meurer said.
One aspect here is that the fourth generation of blowing agents involves difficult chemistry: “You have to have a double bond in the molecule in order to make it to decompose in the atmosphere and hence have a low GWP (global warming potential).”
The double bond means the stability of the molecule is low, but for a PU blowing agent, stability is an important characteristic in keeping thermal conductivity high, said Meurer.
So there is a thin line between low GWP and good thermal conductivity, Meurer said.
Also the olefin family have toxicity issues — more so than HFCs, Meurer added.
A third aspect is that, “if you want to introduce such new chemicals you have to go through the full REACH approval process.” For materials produced at levels of above 1000 tonnes, this means a huge investment, Meurer said. Anyone looking at new chemicals needs to think about whether it is able to capitalise on the investment in question.
“There is a limit to how much you can charge for a blowing agent. You cannot charge E20/kg, that’s for sure,” Meurer said.
Round the world patterns of BA use
Meurer said US appliance manufacturers use 134a as a blowing agent, and may convert to the hydrocarbon cyclopentane (CP).
In Europe, Solvay is still promoting and actively selling 365mfc, with its major application in spray foam, Meurer commented.
“If you look into big PU uses in Europe, continuous panels, appliance, then pentane is used by the big companies, with smaller consumers using a wider range — HFC-245fa, 365mfc, depending on use,” said Meurer. “It’s a matter of taste, that’s the way Europe has gone.”
He noted that five years ago the market for HFC-365 mfc was basically Europe and Japan. “Now it is pretty much fragmented and we are pretty global,” the Solvay executive said, with sales in China, Brazil, India, Mexico: “All these emerging markets are now actively producing foams using 365.”
Phase-out for HCFC 141b officially is 2030, but HFC use will speed up in steps. Under the World Bank’s ‘worst first’ principle, each country sets a strategy for HCFC elimination.
“In the long run it is very clear globally that HCFC 141b will go in many places by 2015,” Meurer said. This is because HFCFC 22 is hard to replace, while there are more alternatives for 141b.
Solvay is also looking at niches where 365 can be used “looking for a share of the market,” Meurer added.
“A large share of the 141b market will go to pentane, but we believe there are a number of segments where HFCs represent the best option currently available. For example, in spray foam, and for smaller consumers who cannot afford to convert their continuous panel facility to pentane or HCs,” he explained. Also 365mfc is sometimes used where the optimum K factor is required.
HFCs — both 245fa as well as 365mfc — have advantages, he noted. They give foam with better lambda values than pentane. Not all customers are willing or able to pay the price for this, since HFCs are much more expensive than pentane.
For refrigerators, where the need is to raise the K factor of appliances to meet current stringent demands for saving energy, such BAs may be used, Meurer said.
Solvay is promoting 365mfc in appliance foam in blends combined with pentane to come to the next level of insulation values, he added. “Our approach is to be cost neutral,” he said.
This is not the only solution, and “as you go to the next level you get Bosch Siemens, for example, with VIPs (vacuum insulation panels) in top fridges,” Meurer said.
A fridge shown on Solvay’s booth was made with 365mfc by a Chinese manufacturer that makes 12-15 million fridges a year, he added.
Solvay intends to enter the US market for spray foam in 2013, Meurer said.