By Liz White
Although the North American polyurethane market is not in “good shape,” the situation for MDI (methylene diphenyl diisocyanate) is slightly better,” commented Steve Burns, the new North American director of Huntsman’s polyurethanes business.
For example, in construction, MDI has been seeing “pretty good growth despite the low housing starts,” he said. Burns thinks the insulation sector is showing really good growth because of the rising demand for energy efficiency, as building codes get stronger, with a rising need to cut energy use for heating/cooling.
“Insulation is a key area for us, and we are putting more resources behind it, because of that,” said Burns, noting that this would include allocating more people to the business.
Some 31 percent of Huntsman’s MDI sales in 2010 went into the insulation market, its largest by sales.
The North American spray foam market is showing the fastest growth, Burns said, in a 27 Sept interview at the meeting of the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry (CPI) in Nashville, Tennessee.
SPF production in North America reached 425 million lbs (193 000 tonnes) in 2010, an increase of 25 percent since 2006, acccording to the 2010 End-Use Market Survey on the Polyurethanes Industry in the US, Canada and Mexico, published by CPI.
This growth explains why Huntsman is putting a lot of effort in this area.
Monica Karamagi, Huntsman regional marketing and industry affairs manager, said that demand for continuous insulation for exteriors “will make a huge difference,” and give more impetus towards higher SPF use.
Huntsman draws on the resources of the industry associations such as CPI, the Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance (SPFA) and the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturer’s Association (PIMA), for support in increasing MDI growth in construction, Karamagi noted. Karamagi is on the SPFA board and on the leadership committee of the SPF coalition.
Industry associations are valuable in helping the industry to grow, and a particularly fruitful approach is the work on building codes, to ensure PU is covered, said Burns.
In the US, the 2010 update of the ASHRAE 90.1 regulation, with revised R values for insulation, has potential to benefit the PU insulation industry. Karamagi pointed out, however, that international building code (IBC) regulations can take a while to be adopted across all of the US.
Also, new building and construction rates are “sluggish to put it kindly,” said Karamagi.
But she noted that when construction does pick up, “we will see a difference,” as the regulations on higher R values start to kick in. Fibreglass, which currently has the largest share of the US insulation market (57 percent, PU: 26 percent), has roughly half the R value per inch of polyurethane, according to Huntsman data.
‘Bumping along the bottom’
Residential construction in the US is “still bumping along the bottom,” said Burns. Canada’s construction has not suffered so much, in part because of the country’s better financial control, he noted.
In South America, Brazil, Argentina and others are showing higher GDP growth and trends in these areas are positive for insulation as energy costs are a global issue, Burns added.
In North America MDI is growing in other areas, such as in wood products and flexible slabstock, Karamagi commented.
In products such as particle fibreboard, there has been a move away from using urea formaldehyde resins as a binder as states such as California regulate on emissions from these products. This is liable to become a national standard, and will promote higher use of MDI-based binders, as the others find it hard to meet the emissions and performance targets, Burns added, noting that MDI also has cost advantages.
This new business is a “nice surprise” for PU, in a market where little growth was expected, the Huntsman director noted.
Huntsman has also found a new market for MDI in its Vydro foam for hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, but without soil.
The foam is used as a growth medium and also as a base for vegetative growth in “green roofs,” Burns said.