For many years, the United States enjoyed a cost advantage for olefinic plastics because of lower prices for natural gas used to make feedstocks. It looks now like Brazil may become the country with a feedstock cost advantage because of its huge sugar cane crop. “We have needed more capacity in South America to meet growing demand for polyethylene,” says Diego Donoso, commercial director for basic and performance plastics in Latin America for Dow Chemical. “For the last two years we haven been studying alternative feedstocks.” Dow chose sugar cane as a feedstock for a projected plant for economic reasons. Sugar cane is “advantaged” any time the price of oil is over $40 a barrel, Donoso told me at the Dow Business Center at K 2007. Oil has been trading at record highs over $80 a barrel. Dow is teaming with Brazilian cane producer CrystalSev to build a 700 million lbs/yr polyethylene plant in Brazil—the biggest such plant ever contemplated. Construction is expected to begin next year and finish in 2011. The molecular structure of the finished plastic will be identical to the structure of plastics made from hydrocarbons. As such the material has no sacrifice in properties, and is fully recyclable in normal streams. The environmental argument is, of course, also compelling. Donoso told me that 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide will be consumed for every pound of plastic created. Dow rejected any notion of making PE from corn-based ethanol because the carbon dioxide numbers did not work. Dow is the biggest producer of PE in the world. There’s another interesting note to this story. It fits into a Dow transformation process called “asset light” in which Dow reduces its equity footprint in basic plastics, whose price volatility has battered corporate profit predictability in the past. Dow and partner CrystalSev are each putting 50 percent equity in the new company that will make sugar-based PE in Brazil.
Norway-based additive manufacturing company Norsk Titanium is building what it says is the first industrial-scale 3D printing plant in the world for making aerospace-grade metal components. The New York state plant will produce 400 metric tons each year of aerospace-grade, structural titanium parts.
Siemens and Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology have achieved a faster production process based on selective laser melting for speeding up the prototyping of big, complex metal parts in gas turbine engines.
BMW has already incorporated more than 10,000 3D-printed parts in the Rolls-Royce Phantom and intends to expand the use of 3D printing in its cars even more in the future. Meanwhile, Daimler has started using additive manufacturing for producing spare parts in Mercedes-Benz Trucks.
SABIC's lightweighting polycarbonate glazing materials have appeared for the first time in a production car: the rear quarter window of Toyota's special edition 86 GRMN sports car, where they're saving 50% of its weight compared to conventional glass.
Design engineers play a big role in selecting both suppliers and materials for their designs. Our most recent Design News Materials Survey says they continue to be highly involved, in some ways even more than the last time we asked to peek inside their cubicles.
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