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Market quest for innovative composites driving industry growth

By Davide Ghilotti
Published: Friday, 16 June 2017

Fast-growing demand for speciality composite materials offering improved weight profile and durability from sectors as diverse as automotive, energy and electronics is creating encouraging business opportunities for producers, as innovation remains crucial, Covestro told IM London.

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Insulation is driving demand for new materials. (Source: Covestro)

German-headquartered polymers and composites maker Covestro recorded almost double-digit growth in core volumes in the first quarter of 2017 on the back of fast-rising demand for innovative materials from end markets such as automotive and renewables.

The Q1 performance – described as "exceptional" by chairman and CEO Patrick Thomas at a meeting with IM in London earlier this month – is down to widespread appetite for component materials that manufacturers can rely on to achieve improved durability, longer life cycles and functionality of their products.

Automakers active in the electric vehicle (EV) space seek light materials that can reduce the overall weight of vehicles, to improve the range their cars can travel on a single charge. Similarly, they are now increasingly recipient towards feedstocks that are produced in a sustainable and environmental friendly way.

For their part, renewable energy companies want to further their competitiveness, by reducing costs and improving on the performance of their products, making them more attractive to the wider market.

In construction, energy efficiency is now all the rage, whether in new builds where high insulation standards are applied, or in the modernisation of existing buildings via retrofitting insulation materials in ceilings, walls and roofs.

Covestro’s range of products aim to meet these needs, and its ranges of advanced polycarbonates and polyurethanes, coatings and speciality feedstocks have become a main driver of growth for the business.

"Take EVs: an electric car uses 24-25kg of our lightweight materials, whereas a standard car uses about four or five," Thomas told IM.

Increasing capacity

Market demand is creating an evident business case for companies to divert investment towards expanding existing facilities and increase capacity.

Covestro has been investing in strategic segment and areas: in China, it doubled its polycarbonate capacity, and is planning to expand it further by 200,000 tpa.

In the old continent, the company is planning to enhance its European MDI (diphenylmethane diisocyanate, a component of polyurethane rigid foams) capacity, mainly to meet demand from the construction and insulation sectors across Europe.

Covestro’s MDI plant in Tarragona, Spain, was close to being shut last year due to lack of competitiveness against overseas sites. A surge in demand seen throughout 2016, however, has prompted a change of plan, and the company has now secured a licence extension for three more years, as well as an improved processing methods that eliminates mercury emissions during the chlorine production process.

It was key for the company to maintain the Terragona presence, Thomas told IM: "It’s one of the largest areas for chemicals in Europe," he said.

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 Patrick Thomas in London. (Source: IM)

Renewables and wind power

The thriving renewable energy sector is one of the end markets that offer some of the most exciting business opportunities for speciality materials producers.

Structures like wind turbines, for instance, can benefit from improved manufacturing materials that can offer higher durability and resistance.

Covestro has developed a polyurethane foam to replace the special woods currently used to produce the wind blades of the turbines.

The material extends the durability of the blade: typical blades need repairing on the leading edge every two or so years, due to rain and spinning wear.

"We made an elastometer that goes around the blade [where most erosion would take place] that lasts maybe 10 years," said Thomas. "We are the only company out there producing wind blades in this way."

Micro-cracks in the standard epoxy resin are also avoided through the foam material.

The company is confident that such improvements can lead to drastic changes in the entire viability of wind power. "If you can deliver blades that last for 20 years, instead of seven as it normally is, the whole economics of wind change," Thomas said.

China is one of the leading target markets for wind power-related products and materials. The country is the single largest windmill market at the moment, and showing rapid pace of growth.

Covestro is now in an early adoption stage for its wind blades in China. Regulatory approvals have been granted, and some companies are testing the product.

Asked about the cost of the new blade type compared with ordinary materials, Thomas told IM: "The material costs [of our product] are higher than the standard materials. But the economic life and durability of this product is also longer. We think that, for the market, this is a cost-effective improvement."

Public transport: make it light

Covestro has seen a significant increase in its thermoplastics and carbon fibre/polycarbonate composites business aimed at China’s public transport.

As the rest of the automotive industry, public transport is evolving both in terms of performance and materials employed. Polycarbonate glazing and carbon fibre composites are one such solution – delivering "very lightweight" qualities while preserving the strength of many ordinary metals.

Volumes of these materials produced by the company are much smaller compared with simpler, more widespread composites. Nevertheless, a trend is visible in that demand from end markets is tending towards higher-value, smaller-volume, specifically-made materials.

Thomas told IM: "These are still specific productions. We are moving from a volume-based approach to small scale and specificity. Once standardisation is in place, then production will increase to large volumes."

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The Co2-based polyurethane foam. (Source: Covestro)

Sustainable feedstocks

Another trend that producers of polymers say is gathering pace is demand for non-petrochemical feedstocks – non-oil, non-gas sourced materials.

Covestro’s work to this end has resulted in the first production of a Co2-based polyol – a polyurethane foam component used in mattresses, upholstered furniture, insulation, car seats.

Back in December, a plant for the production of the material was inaugurated in Dormagen, near Cologne. The site has a current capacity of 5,000 tpa, but the company confirmed to IM there is a target to expand capacity to 100,000 tpa, once a suitable partner is found.

The Co2-based polyol is one of those products that employ so-called "free sources of raw material" – in this case, carbon dioxide. The Co2 is added to propane oxide to achieve the foamy material.

Covestro has so far achieved a 20% Co2 usage in the material, and is looking into ways to increase the share to 40%, delivering further cuts in costs of production (the higher Co2 content, the lower content of propane oxide – which is expensive – is needed).

Building insulation is one end market that is now particularly active for polyurethane foams, specifically in developed countries in Europe and North America, where requalification of existing buildings is being supported by policies focused on energy efficiency.

Headquartered in Leverkusen, Covestro serves diverse end markets including electronics, automotive and aerospace, construction, medical and cosmetics, and textiles.

A variety of industrial minerals are used in the production of composites, including borates, nitrates, salt, soda ash, quartz, kaolin, speciality and silica sand, among others.



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