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
The Q1 performance – described as "exceptional" by
chairman and CEO Patrick Thomas at a meeting with
IM in London in June – 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.