Report by Liz White, UTI editor
Three aspects of the polyurethanes business will have high significance in the short to medium term, according to industry experts UTI spoke to recently.
One is lightweighting in vehicles where the urethanes business has a lot to offer to help cut fuel use and CO² emissions.
Many experts also commented on the need for the industry to strongly promote polyurethane’s excellent insulation performance, as energy saving comes to the fore globally.
And another aspect is the need for recycling programmes, an issue which will eventually be forced on the sector by regulation, as Recticel pointed out for flexible foams used in mattresses (see box p41).
“In the long run, recycling and reuse will be important,” agreed Dr Hans W. Schloz, managing director of the FSK, the German polyurethane and plastics foam association.
Schloz noted that recycling must come into sharper focus “in view of the shortage of raw materials and higher prices.” Lightweighting for automotive is becoming more and more important: “There are already quite a lot of uses where PU composites can be exploited, and some yet to be developed,” said Nick Webster, Huntsman vice president for EMEAI (Europe, Middle East, Africa, India).
For machinery maker Cannon Afros, sales manager Davide Lucca commented that, “Smart technologies to save energy … are our leitmotif.” The transport industry “demands more efficiency, and we are responding with a series of technologies that we hope to consolidate in the next months,” Lucca said, in a statement for UTI.
The demands of climate protection and conservation of resources are important factors behind the growing demand for lightweight automotive parts, Bayer MaterialScience pointed out. The company added that it has just developed a new PU RIM system, characterised by “a sophisticated combination of fillers,” leading to further weight reduction, but retaining mechanical properties.
Another factor in using foams for cars such as the “smart Forvision,” for example, is that they help make a car lighter – but with “enough ‘power’ to insulate the vehicle properly,” said Dr Raimar Jahn, president of BASF’s polyurethanes division.
Jahn listed energy saving, comfort, renewability and greener raw materials as important trends for 2012.
Aim high in insulation
“I think energy saving is and will remain a key factor. Especially in construction, PU has to offer a lot with regard to highly efficient insulation of buildings. And it’s a huge market, where PU still plays only a little role,” said Jahn, in written answers to UTI.
“The whole PU industry should go for more market share, here,” he added, echoing Kingspan’s Peter Wilson (see p32).
Nick Webster picked out insulation as one of three areas where he sees strong opportunities for growth for Huntsman’s mainstream MDI (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate) business in 2012 in Europe.
In insulation, “we are working with customers not only on new build but also on renovation, which in many ways is the bigger opportunity in Europe still,” Webster said, in a 25 Jan telephone interview.
Huntsman has also “been pleased with development of business in the auto sector,” Webster said.
A third growth area for Huntsman’s MDI business lies in CASE (coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers) segments.
Some of this is “down to the strength of the German-centred machinery and manufacturing sectors, which really showed great performance last year,” commented Webster.
This makes a good match between “high-performance technology and the fundamental strength of that mid-European, technologically developed and export-led manufacturing base,” he added.
Webster noted that water conservation will become increasingly crucial as urbanisation continues apace, and Huntsman has products to help manage this. “When you talk to customers, to local authorities and big cities, this is getting important to them,” he commented.
Huntsman’s Vydro brand of waterproofing plays to PU’s strengths, and, “is neat technology to help them.” Finally, he said, Huntsman has “some really nice technology around acoustics, particularly in the transport sector, where we see wider opportunities.” Acoustic uses may also develop well in the building sector, since more people are living in cities in high densities, and tolerance to noise is diminishing, Webster said.
“When we look at things that are important for 2012, that’s one of them,” Webster said, noting opportunities to take the technology up another level. Engineers and architects can take advantage of the ability with PU to tune the acoustic properties of the foam to suit specific needs of customers: “There’s a bit of magic there,” he concluded.
Other companies also commented on specific products: for example, in rigid PU foam for refrigerators, BMS said it has been able to further reduce cell diameter, which it says “offers significant efficiency gains compared with standard solutions.” Steven English, president of Dow Polyurethanes, said the group will be offering “new products … this year for the flexible foam market,” and noted that it continues to promote its Pascal technology for better rigid foams in appliances. It also has new offerings for the construction market.
Green suffers in tough economies
While many people referred to developments in green technology, Dow’s Steven English feels renewable resources have “really suffered in the downturn where price is an issue, and everyone’s looking for a bargain.” Since green products are not in this latter category, effort and interest in this aspect has slowed. “Interest will come back, but customers have to realise it’s not going to be the cheap alternative they think it is,” he emphasised.
Dow’s projects here are currently on hold, English added, in a 25 Jan telephone interview.
Dow is also clearly committed to the systems side, but English noted that there is a finite amount of market out there, with all suppliers chasing the same pot of speciality business. Suppliers have to be careful they don’t push the systems business into becoming a commodity one, he commented.
New mixing heads from Cannon To respond to new trends in PU chemistry, Cannon Afros has developed two new series of heads, Lucca said. One is designed to make rigid foams with high isocyanate-index formulations, and the other is for making flexible car seat foam, where it can handle more than six separate chemical components, said Lucca.
Cannon has also reinforced its presence in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) region during the past four years, supporting its Brazilian and Indian operations, as well as “investing in new offices in Russia and continuing our expansion in China with Shinnon, a strong local manufacturing unit.” And Lucca made an important point: “Our expectations are high, because these countries fill, in our sales budgets, the important gap left by a ‘slow-motion’ Europe.” In contrast to the slowness of the European economies, the US did very well last year for Cannon, he stressed. Now, with the US presidential election coming up, investors are keeping a more prudent profile, Lucca commented.
A major theme of the coming years will be sustainability, pointed out Rik De Vos, new head of the flexible foam business at Recticel.
In this context, the sector will need innovation concerning the fire performance of flexible foam, which is clearly a public concern, as reflected in UK legislation, he added.
“This will have a knock-on effect in high demand from many other countries for better fire performance,” said De Vos: “We see that as a major platform.” He stressed that, “The whole industry will be confronted with the fact that upholstery, furniture bedding mattresses, will need to meet more stringent norms in future.” Current fire retardants and additives often contain halogens and phosphorus, and there are moves to eliminate these, involving “a pretty complex solution.” Recycling of post-consumer flexible foam is another theme. This is also part of the future role within Recticel of De Vos’s predecessor Ward Dupont, a role that “fits nicely with his mandate as Europur president,“ said De Vos in a 31 Jan interview.
Regulations are beginning to develop in Europe around a cradleto- cradle approach for mattresses, for instance, De Vos noted. This will require “some recyclability of the mattresses we produce and bring into the equation the overall value chain.” De Vos sees this as clearly as much a company challenge as an industry one, and said that, within Recticel, there are clear projects developing.
Dupont made a strong distinction between rebond foam, made using virgin production scrap, and end-oflife post-consumer foam.
Virgin production waste is a valuable material. Some is baled and shipped to many regions — the US, Australia, New Zealand — for use as carpet underlay. “The majority of European virgin trim is, however, converted in Europe to rebonded foam for carpet underlay and other applications,” said Dupont. Recticel has successfully developed markets here spanning acoustics and sportsfield shockpads.
“But the major issue is what will happen in the future with post-consumer waste,” Dupont said.
“In principle, every tonne of foam we produce ends either in an incinerator or in landfill,” at the end of its useful life.
“We know that several countries are working on legislation that will set ways of collecting post-consumer waste and treating it in some controlled way, by industry initiatives,” he added.
Current disposal routes for foam products are incineration and landfill.
The time-span for being ready with the technology, logistics and organisation to handle the full stream of post-consumer PU waste may be five or more probably 10 years.
As an industry challenge this is an important role for Europur, Dupont said.
But the executives stressed that Recticel, as one of the market leaders, must also develop its own position and strategy here.
All the chemical/physical recycling routes developed so far have been successful on a lab scale, but these have not been scaled up sufficiently because of a lack of volume. When legislation is enacted, it will bring this volume to whatever technology is available to “treat polymer and polyurethane waste in a smart way,” Dupont said.
Dupont’s task will be to look at current and upcoming legislation, and examine whether the technologies really work, as well as looking at how the political world views such technologies — “and how much can we physically recycle,” he added.
France is ahead of the game here, said Dupont, with two cantons designated to carry out pilot projects on collecting end-of-life matresses and upholstered furniture and recycling the different materials, amongst them PU-foam, in a controlled and safe way.” This is likely to then expand into a wider scheme, Dupont noted.
WORLD-SCALE TDI AT BASF
Jahn at BASF is “happy about our decision to build our world-scale TDI (toluene diisocyanate) plant in Ludwigshafen.” This plant will position BASF as “the low-cost producer in Europe due to economies of scale and the highly efficient integration into our Verbund,” Jahn claimed.
“Together with our MDI investment in Chongqing this bolsters our leading position in the PU industry,” he claimed.
Jahn also noted that as a major supplier of polyurethane systems, BASF is “constantly expanding our global system house network.” It has new sites in Dubai (opened April 2011), and in Chongqing and in Tianjin, in China, where BASF did the groundbreaking last year.
A new Cellasto plant in Shanghai for automotive spring aids started up in July 2011, and in spring 2012, BASF will open a new applications technology centre near St Petersburg in Russia, to offer local sales and services for PU systems customers.
BASF’s specialities business in TPU (Elastollan) and Cellasto remained very promising last year, due to good sales in the automotive and transport industries, Jahn said.
CHINA EFFORT PAYING OFF
For Evonik Industries’ comfort and insulation division, the group’s “early decision to localise production in China has certainly paid off,” said Dr Tammo Boinowitz, senior vice president & general manager of this business.
Evonik is well positioned to capture industry growth with its integrated production sites in three world regions, Boinowitz added.
In 2012, Evonik will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its production in Shanghai, China, where it will also start using a new high-pressure dispensing machine to increase technical support for local customers making rigid foam in the region, he said, in a written statement for UTI.
For Boinowitz, innovation in the PU industry will be driven by “the megatrends of ‘consumer health & safety’ and energy & resource efficiency.” Evonik, he said, has put a great amount of effort, even during the economic downturn, into providing innovative solutions. These include ultra-low emanation silicones, surfactants with the lowest negative impact on foam flammability, and silicones resulting in the finest cell structure providing optimal foam-insulation performance.
And, he concluded, “several top-notch product solutions will be introduced at the upcoming UTECH Europe 2012.” Box end
MAJOR PROJECTS FOR DOW
Dow Chemical Co.’s polyurethanes business saw some key events in 2011. One of these was the successful full-scale use of the new propylene oxide plant at Map Ta Phut, in Thailand; another the announcement of a massive Sadara joint venture petrochemical project in Saudi Arabia, said Steven English, president of Dow’s polyurethanes division.
English described the Map Ta Phut plant startup as “exceeding expectations, on time,” and giving good quality and yield.
Also, Dow’s announcement of the Sadara project with full basic materials for polyurethanes, TDI, MDI, and PO/polyols, “has shown its confidence in the PU sector,” English said. “For us, 2011 was a good year at Dow Polyurethanes, in terms of confirming our portfolio,” he added.
Box end Box Start New units in India, Turkey For Huntsman’s polyurethanes business in EMEAI (Europe, Middle East, Africa, India) in 2011, an event that “really stood out ... is a new systems house being built in Pune, India,” said Nick Webster, Huntsman vice president for the region.
Added to this is Huntsman’s turn of the year investment in the EMA systems house, in Turkey, marking further commitment in markets which are becoming a bigger share of the total activity, Webster added.
Globalisation in supply
In common with other PU suppliers, Bayer MaterialScience sees the region it calls Greater China remaining the major growth market in the medium to long-term.
“Consequently, the group has built up new worldscale plants in Shanghai to comply with the growing demand,” the company said in a statement for UTI.
Also, the other BRIC countries (consisting of Brazil, Russia, India and China) are developing well, BMS said.