Monday, February 20, 2012

A Green Polyethylene - Is It Worth the Effort?

Plastemart is reporting that "[a] method of converting plant matter into ethylene and propylene using a nanotechnology process that offers an alternative to oil-based production, has been developed by a team from Utrecht University and Dow Chemical Co, as per Reuters. This also means they will not be biodegradable [*], although they will be made from renewable resources."

This strikes me as odd - not that it can't be done - but that anyone would try to undertake this. Polyethylene (PE) is the largest volume plastic in the world. It has been in that number one position for as long as I can recall and I don't see anything displacing it in the near future and possibly forever. Similarly, polypropylene (PP) is the second largest volume polymer produced in the world and again similarly, nothing is going to displace it anytime soon.

Given these large volumes of plastic, it may seem like making more would be a good idea since the demand is already so high. The problem with making more of these plastics however, is that the existing margins for these materials are very thin. They are made in highly specialized, extremely large (200,000 metrics tons or more) and expensive factories ($200 million or more), all in an effort to squeeze out costs. If you wanted to get into the polymer business, PE and PP are not the way to do it. This is not a "make a little, sell a little" business that you gradually scale up. You go all in or you go home. If you want to start small and grow, start with more exotic polymers that you can make and sell in very small quantities - medical grade plastics such as used in coatings are a terrific example. As the demand for your product slowly grows, you can slowly increase capacity. Plus you can sell them for a lot and make large margins.

But as we've discussed here many times, Dow works exclusively on a big scale. They have no interest in low volume polymers - the bigger the better, and so the idea of having a green source for polyethylene and polypropylene are going to catch their eye. While I think that this is potentially interesting to source these polymers from plants and not petroleum byproducts, unless the economics of this option are significantly different than existing option, I can't see this technology getting off the ground. It works in the lab, fine. It will be cheap enough to build a small pilot line, and see how the scale-up goes, although even that will be fraught with problems. The pilot plant will make such small amount of materials that no one other than a small-time operator would be able to use these novels materials, and Dow will be far more interested in the opinion of large consumers (Berry Plastics, or Bemis or Trex) and not 'Bubba John's Blow Molding, Insurance & Appliance Repair Shop'.
It the classic chicken-and-the-egg scenario: Dow needs to make a large quantity of material to decide if they want to make a large quantity of material.

I am far more optimistic about other bio-sourced polymers. Sources for various diols, diacids, etc. are begining to emerge for making polyamides, polyesters, etc. and all of these will have the potential to make gradual introductions into the marketplace since the volumes needed to make the decisions about the viability of the new materials are not so high. The investment needed is lower and so you don't need a massive bank statement to get into the game.

[*] I would hope that anyone regularly reading this blog would know that just because something - plastic or otherwise - is made from renewable resources, it is not necessarily biodegradable.

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