Specification of bioplastics by design engineers continues to advance at a glacial pace, because of concerns about their cost and performance profiles. But behind the scenes, major engineering plastics producers continue to invest in new technology based on renewable resources, not hydrocarbons like oil or natural gas.
Solvay announced this month that it will form a partnership with Avantium to jointly develop a next generation of green high-performance polyamides (nylons). The marriage is an interesting one. Solvay is a leading producer of high-end engineering plastics through its US subsidiary, Solvay Advanced Polymers. Solvay is acquiring Rhodia, a leading supplier of polyamide 66. Avantium, an R&D company, has developed a patented technology called YXY that converts biomass into Furanic building blocks, such as FDCA (2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid). The Solvay-Avantium collaboration will explore the potential for using the YXY building blocks for polyamides.
"The polyamides we will develop together [with Solvay] will become another novel and exciting outlet for our YXY building blocks," Tom van Aken, CEO of Avantium, said in a press release. "Solvay's expertise in the field of polyamides is very important to understand the polyamides we will focus on and bring them closer to commercial applications. This agreement is another important step to explore high-value added applications for our YXY building blocks, in addition to work we are already doing in a complementary polyamide area."
The producer most committed to using renewable resources for engineering plastics is DuPont, which has partnered with Tate & Lyle to produce a corn-based feedstock (1,3-propanediol -- Bio-PDO) for a new family of plastics that compete against polyesters and elastomers with a unique property set. Commercial acceptance in the engineering community has been slow. DuPont showed a very small group of applications made from its renewable materials at K2010 in Dusseldorf, Germany.
But the issue does get high-level bandwidth. In the company's 2010 annual review, CEO Ellen Kullman identified reduced dependence on fossil fuel and keeping the environment safe as two of the three megatrends driving R&D and investment at DuPont.
Some producers, such as Sabic Innovative Plastics, are less involved with renewable resources, because their polymer chemistries are less conducive to renewable feedstocks.
In a recent Design News survey, engineers said they love the idea of bioplastics, but they feel higher costs will be a major stumbling block.
Recent economics are making that argument less powerful.
Since its low point two years ago, the price of ABS, a workhorse engineering plastic, has risen more than 60 percent to around $1.35 per pound, according to market sources. The cost of injection grade homopolymer polypropylene has risen more than 40 percent in the past two years.
Strong demand is one reason behind the higher prices. Another is the effect of higher hydrocarbon prices on plastic feedstocks over the past year. There have also been some specific problems, such as production problems at styrenics plants.
One of the first to publicly acknowledge the impact of soaring raw materials costs is the Swedish appliance manufacturer Electrolux. CEO Keith McLoughlin told Dow Jones Newswires: "The cycle of raw materials has peaked in total, but there are variances in metals and plastics." He specifically called the spike in plastics "worrisome."
Bioplastics are an interesting alternative, because their costs, at least theoretically, are less cyclical than plastics tied to the price of oil. That will become even truer as producers such as DuPont focus more on waste biomass as a feedstock.