Breaking up doesn't have to be hard to do. In the chemical-company equivalent of an amicable divorce, Bayer Chemicals Corp. this month divvied up its materials portfolio and created two new companies that will focus on various kinds of different plastics applications.
Bayer's more commonplace materials—a list that includes nylon, synthetic rubbers, styrenic resins like ABS, and related polymer blends—will now be manufactured and marketed by a company called LANXESS.
Hubert Fink, who heads up the new company's styrenics business, reports that LANXESS will mostly bring existing products into applications that still have some growth potential. "Even mature products can generate significant innovation potential," he says. To take a couple of examples, the company will continue to develop applications such as nylon air intake manifolds for cars and ABS liners for refrigerators. The company will also take over Bayer's patented plastic-metal hybrid technology, which creates structural components by overmolding metal stampings with reinforced plastics.
The other new company, Bayer Material Sciences, may be of more interest to forward-looking engineers. Its materials portfolio includes polycarbonates, polyurethanes, coatings, adhesives, and thermoplastic polyurethane elastomers. It also includes electrically conductive and light-emitting polymers from its subsidiary H.C. Starck. Bayer Material Sciences will continue to supply these materials for existing applications—such as polycarbonate for optical media.
But this revamped materials supplier will also devote a significant chunk of its resources to research and application development that could fundamentally change what plastics can do. Robert J. Kumpf, vice president of future business, reports that Bayer Material Sciences plans to spend about €300 million (366 million) per year on R&D, which represents about 5 percent of its 2003 sales. "Considering the size of our company, that's a sizeable investment," he says.
Kumpf recently described some of the research areas and new opportunities for the company's materials technologies. Automotive glazing made from polycarbonate "is starting to get a lot of traction," he says. So are composite roof modules that encapsulate the plastic glazing with other thermoplastics to meet cosmetic and structural goals. The company has also helped develop new urethane technologies. One of them turns a specially formulated urethane foam into speaker panels that can be seamlessly integrated into buildings—and possibly into automotive interiors in conjunction with TPU elastomers.
Looking further down the road, the company's research efforts will fall into three categories: Smaller, brighter, and safer.
Smaller. Nanotechnology will be one focus. Kumpf is careful to note that he doesn't mean nanoscale machines or robots. "Nanotechnology is not a what, it's a how," he explains. And in Bayer's case, nanotech boils down to how the company can improve its polymers, coatings, and adhesives. Kumpf says the first wave of innovations will involve the use of nanoscale additives to improve the performance of materials. Bayer has already done some of this work. For instance, the company has developed a nanoscale additive that can improve the pre-cure or green strength of its aqueous adhesives. Kumpf believes nanotechnology will "evolve from additives to molecular manipulation." This second generation of nanotech development will add functionality to polymer surfaces—including the ability to improve flow through air or water to build in sensing capabilities.
Brighter. Bayer Material Sciences will also emphasize electroluminescent (EL) plastics, whose molecules emit light when zapped with a small electric charge. When combined with a polymer film, these EL materials can be turned into formable, three-dimensional lighting surfaces. Bayer and Lumitee Ltd. AG have already worked with a German handbag maker, Bree, to light the inside of women's purses with these EL lamps. But the broader implications for EL lighting will be in automotive interiors, appliances, and other durable consumer products. "We believe the days of the incandescent bulb are numbered," says Kumpf, predicting that EL will become part of a lighting revolution that also includes LED and OLED technology.
Safer. Bayer will additionally develop safety and security applications. Some of these applications are basic, such as using polycarbonate in bulletproof glazing. But the company also plans to leverage its nanotechnology and lighting technology to come up with new safety systems. "Smart surfaces that can provide lighting or sensing capabilities have tremendous implications for safety or homeland security applications," Kumpf says.
To support the development of these emerging applications, Bayer Material Sciences will soon create a Future Business Center. Its staff will still perform classic development activities, such as helping OEM engineers apply materials to their specific parts. But the center will also engage in some non-traditional activities, at least for a chemical company. For example, Kumpf says staff members will also help Bayer track societal trends and match them to materials technologies. Others will hold "ideation" sessions with OEM engineers to introduce them to brand new (organic LED) technologies. All the Future Business Center activities will aim to get new materials out of the lab and into the real world more quickly than in the past, says Kumpf. "Innovation has to be implemented in the marketplace or we don't consider it implemented at all," he says.