Friday, January 08, 2010

Time to Close Up Shop

This week's Plastics News (Jan. 4, 2010, pg. 7) has an interesting opinion piece. It states that "it took GE 15 years and $50 million to make Ultem (polyetherimide) profitable", but then contrast that situation with what has happened since.

  1. Shell developed Carilon, a aliphatic polyketone amide by copolymerizing ethylene and carbon monoxide, but discontinued it in less than 1 year.
  2. Basell stopped Hivalloy polypropylene 6 years after introducing it.
  3. Dow killed Index ethylene-styrene copolymer after 4 years and Questra, syndiotactic polystyrene after 6 years.
Certainly developing a new large scale polymer is a risky proposition: not only do you have to figure out how to make the material on a large scale, but you also have to do so with only rough goalposts. The new material will not be a drop in replacement for any other material, so your customers are either going to be looking for new applications (which take a long time to develop) or take their own risks by using your new material in an existing application that was already doing well enough. (Maybe not great, but well enough). In either case, it makes it extremely difficult to know how the new polymer should be made, so certainly one can't expect all new polymer introductions to succeed. It's just that the case of Ultem certain makes a strong argument that it won't happen quickly.

What really had me laughing (although also embarrassed (see below))was this quote:

"Banholzer (Dow's Chief Technology Officer) went on to say that he didn’t think any new polymers would be discovered, since chemists already had done a thorough job in finding ways to link carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms."

Now I can remember think that 20 years ago when I was winding up grad school - that all polymers had been invented and that the world was going to need us engineers to do all we could with them. 5 years on the job and I could see already by then that I was wrong. Seriously wrong. Thank goodness I never published those thoughts anywhere. I still cringe thinking about it.

But for a senior technology officer to say those things is unthinkable. More and more organic chemistry articles are written each year, with new and improved reactions for "link[ing] carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms". All the reactions are not discovered, anymore than all the drugs, using those same links have been discovered. Given Banholzer's logic, there is hardly a need for chemists any more.

Certainly there will never be another polyethylene, just as there will never be another steel despite thousands of years of research, but here's a big hint - you don't want to be in that business anyway. The profit margins are razor thin if they exist at all in the volatile marketplace where prices jump around with oil futures. You want to be an small market with nice or even huge margins (think medical polymers that sell for thousands/kg). There are endless possibilities for new polymers there (I know, I've developed some myself). It's not areas that large corporations get into, as these comments clearly show.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

Can I get an amen?!