Plastics in forward drive

By Mike O'Driscoll
Published: Monday, 27 September 2010

With the recession receding in the rear view mirror, the filler minerals industry looks forward to a smoother ride ahead with the automotive market

Imagine a world without plastics. Indeed our modern lifestyle could not exist without plastics. Just consider the following: protective packaging for food and drink, lightweight and safe materials in automobiles, mobile phones, laptops, outer drums of washing machines, municipal pipe for drinking water and sewage, insulation materials in buildings, medical devices, and critical components for renewable energy sources such as wind turbine blades.

These are just a few everyday applications of plastic that clearly illustrate the world’s increasing dependence on such materials.

Plastics require minerals in their manufacture, which act as functional fillers or pigments (see panel). For industrial mineral producers the good news is that more and more everyday items are being made out of plastic. Even better news is that plastic sectors appear to be recovering from the recession.

In Europe, of 48m. tonnes of plastics produced in 2008, polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) accounted for the largest shares, 18% and 12%, respectively.

Of Europe’s PP compound demand, just over a third comprises mineral filled PP, and just under a third comprises glass fibre reinforced PP. These two market sectors demonstrate the significance of the plastics market for filler minerals, notably calcium carbonate, talc, silica, wollastonite, and kaolin (see panel).

In the BMW X5 and X6 models, mineral filled
PP fenders are used since they offer weight
savings of up to 50%.

Green credentials

Plastics also play an important environmental role. In automobiles, around 40% of plastics used contribute to weight reduction, saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions. According to the PlasticsEurope Market Research Group (PEMRG), the weight reduction from plastic in a modern car saves over 500 litres of fuel over 150,000km.

Likewise, in the aerospace industry, in the new Airbus A380, high performance plastic composites reduce passenger costs per seat as the lighter weight results in lower fuel consumption.

Homes and buildings use plastic insulation. Nearly 40% of all primary energy consumed globally is used in buildings.

Lightweight plastic packaging reduces both the weight of transporting goods and the amount of packaged goods that go to waste both of which reduce CO2 emissions.

In the evolving world of renewable power generation, plastics enable the rotors in wind turbines to be longer and more effective, and components in solar panels to increase their efficiency.

Therefore, this is a market which holds good promise for future demand in certain industrial minerals. However, like most mineral consuming markets, plastics took a knock in the recession and are striving to bounce back.

World plastics production 1950-2008

Includes thermoplastics, polyurethanes, thermosets,
elastomers, adhesives, coatings and sealants and
PP-Fibers. Not included PET-, PA- and Polyacryl-Fibers
Source: PlasticsEurope Market Research Group

Plastic market trends

Overall, the key end markets for plastics are in the packaging, construction, automotive, and electrical and electronic sectors.

World production and consumption of plastics has grown on average by 9% annually since 1950, from 1.5m. tonnes to 245m. tonnes in 2008. This trend was interrupted in 2008 as a direct consequence of the global financial crisis, when production dropped from 260m. tonnes in 2007.

However, it appears that the industry is in recovery. In its report on the plastics market of 15 September 2010, the PEMRG recorded that recovery in the EU27 countries’ primary plastics production had been continuous since mid-2009.

Strong recovery continued through Q2 2010, although it is understood that a cooling off period came into play during the start of Q3 2010, with a slackening of production detected during July 2010.

Regarding end markets, the EU automotive industry is reported as recovering, while the food and beverage industry was impacted less by the recession overall. The construction market, however, was weak in Q1 2010, with weather postponing many projects, and only slight recovery was recorded in Q2 and starting from a very low level.

Leading plastics manufacturer, Borealis, is encouraging replacement of traditional materials in pipes, such as clay and concrete, with plastics and is optimistic about the outlook for the European pipe industry as it sees declines in the overall construction market slowing.

A Euroconstruct report maintains that the market will decline by only 2.2% in 2010 and 1.6% next year, compared to the dramatic 8.4% fall in 2009. Some markets have withstood the economic recession better than others, and civil engineering construction remained stable between 2006 and 2009.

Plastic materials consumption on a per capita basis has grown to approximately 100kg per year in NAFTA and Western Europe Ð the world’s two largest markets. These regions have the potential to grow to approximately 140kg per capita by 2015.

The largest potential growth area for plastics is the rapidly developing Asian countries (excluding Japan), where current per capita consumption is as little as 20kg.

At the cutting edge: garden equipment manufacturer
Husqvarna, has recently switched to using a talc
filled PP compound to replace ABS in its redeveloped
 Flymo range of lawnmowers.
Includes thermoplastics, polyurethanes, thermosets,
elastomers, adhesives, coatings and sealants and
PP-Fibers. Not included PET-, PA- and Polyacryl-Fibers
Source: PlasticsEurope Market Research Group

PP drives demand

PP is one of the key plastic markets for mineral fillers, and its main end use market is the automotive industry, representing just over half of Europe’s PP use, followed in descending order by household appliances, pipe, and furniture.

Cars at present contain an average of >60kg PP per vehicle, which for some models can increase to as much as 70kg or 90kg per vehicle.

Key PP automotive application areas include bumpers, interior trim, fenders, tailgates, and semi-structural components replacing more expensive engineering plastics and higher density metals.

For example, LyondellBassell, of the Netherlands, supplies talc-filled PP for the roof spoiler and tailgate outer panel on the Ford Kuga crossover model. The loading level of the talc in this PP grade is about 30%, and offers low thermal expansion, high stiffness, and excellent surface quality.

In the BMW X5 and X6 models, mineral filled PP fenders are used since they offer weight savings of up to 50%.

Borealis also supplies mineral filled PP for BMW headlamp reinforcements, cleaning systems, airbag sensors, and cooling devices.

Glass fibre filled PP is also seeing increasing use in certain applications requiring long term resistance to high temperatures and chemicals. Borealis is supplying 36% glass fibre reinforced PP compounds to Volkswagen for use as air intake manifolds.

In the appliance sector, typical applications include top and side panels, washing machine hubs, soap dispensers, baseboards and other components.

Appliance manufacturer Electrolux, which holds some 20% of the European market, previously used stainless steel in its products, but now uses around 55,000 tpa of mineral filled (40-50%) PP in its dishwashers and washing machines.

Key applications include 4m. washing machines each comprising a 10kg PP tub, equating to 40,000 tonnes mineral filled PP; bases of washing machines and dishwashers; and various other parts of “wet” appliances.

PP’s main competitive plastic in the appliance market is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is used for its high gloss and superior surface aesthetics.

However, some inroads are being made by mineral filled PP. Most recently, Swedish garden equipment manufacturer Husqvarna, has specified Hostacom ERC 475L, a talc filled PP compound produced by LyondellBasell to
replace ABS in its redeveloped Flymo range of lawnmowers.

The choice was driven by sharp rises in raw material prices and the requirement to use existing tooling in production. It was important that a replacement offered sufficient impact strength and stability of shape when used in the manufacture of body casings. Hostacom has the same shrinkage as ABS, combined with good mechanical performance.

The compound has undergone several development phases to improve brilliance, surface quality and scratch resistance. The material has also enabled a reduction in cycle times compared to ABS, thanks to a 20% reduction in processing temperature.

LyondellBasell also supplied several Hostacom PP grades for the production of interior components, including the instrument panel, door panels and the pillar trim of the 2009 European Car of the Year, the Opel Insignia.

The Hostacom compounds with 15% talc loading outperformed other materials in Opel’s surface appearance tests, particularly in scratch and mar resistance.

Loading crude talc at Rio Tinto Minerals’ mine near Luzenac,
Ariege, south-west France which has a crude output of
450,000 tpa. Inset: A microscopic image clearly showing
the platy crystal structure of talc which helps physical plastic
properties such as modulus and yield strength.
Luzenac Group

Automotive recovery

Recovery in the automotive industry has been particularly buoyant in 2010, with world car production showing a year-on-year increase of 57% in Q1 2010. However, this apparent bounce back must be put into context against a very low base after car production dropped sharply in 2008 and early 2009. Also, the industry entered the recession with heavy stocks and then rapidly destocked.

Worldwide, the US auto market is expected to grow by 9-10% this year. The outlook in Europe is much worse, where scrappage incentive schemes, now phasing out, successfully propped up demand in 2009. European domestic sales are expected to fall in 2010 compared with scrappage-driven 2009 figures, with H2 sales weaker than H1.

Overall, world vehicle production is expected to grow from 61m. to 64m. units in 2010, having decreased by 13.5% worldwide in 2009. This is welcome news for autoplastic suppliers. European producers were impacted by a 16% decline in plastics consumption in cars from 2007 to 2009.

Significantly, it is understood that more plastics are being consumed in car components. AMI Consulting estimates that in Europe an average of 80kg of injection moulded thermoplastics per vehicle was used in 2009.

A conservative rule of thumb is that a 10% reduction in weight yields a 6% improvement in km per litre.

Filler mineral trends

Of the total European polymer composite market in 2007, the total estimated consumption of filler materials was 5.5m. tonnes.

The leading mineral fillers were ground calcium carbonate (GCC; 2m. tonnes, 36% share), talc (315,000 tonnes, 5.6%), and kaolin (300,000 tonnes, 5.4% - see panel).

Owing to the decline in plastics production with the onset of the recession during 2008-2009, the market will do well to get back to such levels in 2011.

However, reports from the industry appear to hold promise for mineral fillers’ outlook.

Peter Goodwin, president and chief executive officer, of US wollastonite producer, NYCO Minerals told IM: “In general NYCO is having a very strong year. Perhaps the best in the last eight. Good cost control of 2009 has yielded improved margins in 2010. Asia is very strong and we are selling many treated grades for plastics and coatings through out Asia, including China.”

In addition to its Willsboro, New York operation (150,000 tpa plant capacity), NYCO operates a mine and plant in Mexico at Hermosillo, Sonora (250,000 tpa).

“Our Mexican operation is now profitable. We have set up a sales office in Monterrey and see opportunities in ceramics, friction, coatings, plastics and construction markets in both Mexico and South America.” Goodwin added.

In India, Wolkem India Ltd is based in the Sirihoi district of Rajasthan, with a production capacity of over 160,000 tpa wollastonite and sees growth in plastics demand in Asia.

Gaurang Singhal, director, Wolkem told IM: “The demand for fillers in polymers, especially in the automobile, household, and construction related markets is expected to increase”.

Singhal admitted that during the last two years the Indian market had declined as a result of the global recession. Demand for fine, micronised and high aspect ratio grades of wollastonite, calcium carbonate, and talc is anticipated to witness more growth, especially in India.

“Generally, the markets in South East Asia and Asia Pacific will recover faster, and also will grow faster than in Europe or USA in the coming future.” added Singhal.

Nepheline syenite, like feldspar, while not among the mainstream mineral fillers, nevertheless is used as a filler in plastics.

There are very few nepheline syenite producers, and world supply is dominated by the Sibelco group from operations in Norway and Canada.

However, Fineton Industrial Minerals Ltd, based in Hong Kong with operations at Anyang, Henan, China remains active as one of the few independents.

With regard to nepheline syenite and plastics, Eric Lo, Managing Director, Fineton, commented: “In the past few years, Fineton has been working to develop nepheline syenite in filler applications, especially in plastics. The grades are Finex 10 (D50<2.5μm and D100 <20μm) and Finex 12 (D50<2.0μm and D100<12μm).”

Lo explained that the most beneficial properties for nepheline syenite’s use in plastics included: good dispersability, stable pH, excellent resistance to weathering and chemical attack, close refractory index to a number of polymers to enable translucency and transparency in certain plastic applications, high dry brightness, and low tint strength.”

GCC has long been a workhorse mineral filler in the plastics industry, and has seen increased use in the breathable films market in recent years.

Imerys has developed a range of GCC products, branded FilmLink, which are well-established in the breathable films market, and has added a new FiberLink range of engineered, surface-treated GCC grades for use in fibre and non-woven products.

There are many advantages of using GCC in plastics, which includes increased plastics production rate owing to the high thermal conductivity of GCC.

Recycled fillers

RockTron Ltd, the UK innovator of eco-mineral recycling technology, is aiming to introduce pulverised fuel ash (PFA) to displace conventional mineral fillers, such as talc, GCC, and fibreglass.

PFA is essentially glass microspheres recycled from waste output produced by coal fired power stations. In 2009, RockTron commissioned a 800,000 tpa PFA processing plant at the site of the Fiddler’s Ferry power station near Widnes, north-west UK. Some 15m. tonnes of PFA is stockpiled at Fiddler Ferry.

RockTron’s Advanced Products include hollow and solid aluminosilicate microspheres (<1 to 300 microns, Mohs hardness 5-6) and solid paramagnetic microspheres.

“We are working with an automotive OEM and producers/compounders of PP and PA where MinTronTM 7 is being evaluated to replace talc in PP, with excellent scratch resistance results and lower emissions” said Godfrey Short, director, Advanced Products Division, RockTron.

The success of testing to date has led to the possibility of producing interior, under bonnet, and exterior components using MinTronª. MinTronª’s low density (2.1-2.3 g/cm3) is claimed to offer weight reduction possibilities by replacing talc (2.7 g/cm3).

Also, with it being 100% recycled with a low carbon footprint (0.08 kg CO2/ kg product), the material can also help automotive OEMs use more recycled materials in their vehicles.

Regarding the price advantage of using PFA over conventional filler minerals, Short commented: “This depends on the product, eg. coated/uncoated, volume, packaging etc., but is likely to be typically 25% to 50% [cheaper] than many inorganic fillers.”

Natural fibre threat

This year been notable as two major automobile manufacturers, PSA Peugeot-Citro‘n and Ford Motor Co., have each declared their intent on increased used of autoplastics comprising natural fibres as reinforcements at the expense of mineral fillers.

Ford is looking to use polypropylene (PP) reinforced sisal fibres, at 30% loading, for injection moulding. The 30% sisal fibre reinforced components have already passed Ford’s crash and head impact specifications.

A centre console manufactured using sisal filled PP weighs 20% less than talc filled PP. Other advantages include a 20% lower melt temperature and a 10% faster cycle time.

Although the natural fibre filled plastic requires further development, such as odour control and colour matching with mineral filled components, the time of the natural fibre filler as a serious force in the plastic filler market has surely arrived.

While it is early days it seems inevitable that natural fibre fillers will eventually take a decent slice of the filler market. Some of the main contenders are hemp, jute, flax, and even pineapple leaves, and banana leaves.

According to fillers consultant Roger Rothon, 60,000 tpa of natural fibre fillers are already being used in European autoplastics, such as in door panels and boot linings. Reprocessed cotton is also being used in truck cabs.

However, natural fibres may not be the total answer. Kent Cutler, vice president sales, of talc producer Rio Tinto Minerals, told IM: “Regarding the automotive industry, non-mineral (organic) matter is difficult to work with in polymers, and most compounds are made for ‘show’ and to get notice from the polymer populace and consumers. However, it is normally too expensive for mainstream commercialisation.”

Although a number of plant by-products have hit the polymer industry in recent years, and have generally failed, the best success has been wood flour for use in wood plastic composites.

“Even the best non-talc mineral to hit the automarket, nanoclay, has had a tough time to penetrate automotive applications. Furthermore, the cost performance reality of talc in automotive and in polymers in general is, and we believe will remain, unrivalled.”

Glass fibre shortage?

In August 2010, the European Commission delayed its consultation on anti-dumping of Chinese glass fibre measures, giving the plastics and composites industry more time to encourage governments to vote against the proposed high level of duties.

At that time, the European Composites Industry Association (EuCIA) said the anti-dumping investigation into glass fibre products originating in China could result in “shocking” levels of duties of 43.6% and considered such measures, lobbied by just eight companies, would “Éaffect an estimated 10,000 company users all over Europe and that these companies will fight for their survival.”

However, the EC’s import duties of 43.6% came into effect on 17 September for a provisional period of six months.

The EuCIA has warned that this will lead to a significant slowdown of composites manufacturing in Europe over the coming months, which will be exacerbated by increased prices of glass fibre on the European market.

The EuCIA believes that at the beginning of 2011 European manufacturers of composite products could face a 20% increase in glass fibre prices, without taking into effect the provisional import duties.

This situation could play into the hands of filler mineral suppliers, as plastic compounders strive to secure suitable volumes of glass fibre for reinforcements, and could thus turn to mineral alternatives.

The European composites industry has recovered from a 35% decline during the economic recession and the market for glass reinforced plastics is expected to grow 24.5% in 2010 to 1bn. tonnes.

Driven mainly by the automotive industry, Germany will experience the fastest growth this year, at 36% to an estimated 161,000 tonnes.

The effect of conventional fillers on the mechanical properties of thermoplastics

Source: Dr Chris DeArmitt, Phantom Plastics, “Filled with success” in Compounding World, July/August 2010

European plastics markets and mineral fillers

Industrial minerals used in plastics

Mineral Major Resins Comments
ATH ABS, TPES, LDPE, PVC, Epoxy, Phenolics, PU Smoke suppressant; extender
Barytes PEU, PU Inert; Increases specific gravity; noise reduction;filler
Calcium carbonate PVC, ABS, Fluoroplastics, Polyolefins, PP, PS, Epoxy, Phenolics, TPES, PU Most widely used filler
Feldspar/Nepheline syenite PVC, Acrylic, PP, PS, Epoxy PEU,  Used to provide weather and chemical resistance
Kaolin TPES, Nylon, Polyolefins, PU, PVC, PEU Platy shape; Largest use in wire and cable, electrical
Mica PP, ABS, Fluoroplastics, Nylon , PC, TPES, Polyolefins, Thermosets Dimensional reinforcement; thermal and mechanical properties
Silica Epoxy, ABS, Polyolefins, PS, PVC, TPES, PU Filler and reinforcement
Talc PP, Nylon, Polyolefins, PVC, Phenolic, PU, PS Platy shape; Stiffness; creep resistance; tensile strength
Wollastonite Nylon, PC, TPES, PP, PS, Polyolefins, Thermoset Needle shape; improves strength; high heat & dimensional stability; improved electrical properties

Source: adapted from tables by Sara Robinson, RT Vanderbilt Co.Inc.

European plastic filler consumption 2007

Filler Consumption (‘000s tonnes) Estimated % as “high performance”*
Ground calcium carbonate 2,000 15
Carbon black 1,800 100
Talc 315 75
Kaolin 300 20
Natural fibres 265 100
Aluminium/Magnesium hydroxide 255 100
Precipitated silica 220 100
Barium sulphate 100 50
Crystalline silica 85 20
Precipitated calcium carbonate 50 100
Calcined kaolin 50 100
Fumed silica 35 100
Wollastonite 25 75
Wood flours 25 10
Others 25 75
Total 5,550 60

* ie. certain sophisticated processed grades further categorised as “high performance”
Source: Roger Rothon (2009) “Filler and filler modifier markets and trends” at High Performance Fillers for Polymer Composites, Barcelona, 4-5 March 2009.

European plastics demand by plastic type 2008

48.5m. tonnes
* EU27+N, CH incl. Other Plastics (~6 Mtonne)
Source: PlasticsEurope Market Research Group

European plastics demand by market 2008

48.5m. tonnes
* EU27+N, CH incl. Other Plastics (~6 Mtonne)
Source: PlasticsEurope Market Research Group

World plastics production 2008 by country and region

245m. tonnes
Source: PlasticsEurope Market Research Group

Simplified flow chart of plastic manufacturing process
showing the compounding stage where mineral fillers
are mixed to form the plastic compound.