Wednesday, August 06, 2014

So you want to develop sustainable polymers, do you?

Here's a short description of the polymer production industry and what the challenges of bringing a new polymer into the world.
  • 6 plastics dominate: high- and low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate and polyvinyl chloride. They make up 76% of the market. These polymers are produced in factories that cost endless billions of dollars of capital and more are constantly being built around the world.
  • Nobody is going to idle all that capacity without a fight. Besides, these plants are "source-blind". They don't know and can't tell whether the monomers being fed into them are petroleum-based or bio-based. Ethylene in, polyethylene out. Ethylene can be made from the dehydration of ethanol and routes are being developed to biobase the other monomers that make up the Big 6. Petroleum will disappear, but these polymers won't.
So what about the remain 24% of the market?
  • You can try and develop a new thermoplastic that will fit into a multitude of applications (as the Big 6 do) but successfully commercializing a new thermoplastic is extremely challenging taking large amounts of time and money. It took GE 15 years and $50 million to make a success of Ultem. Carilon, Hivalloy, Index and Questra are just a few of the tradenames of other thermoplastics that didn't make it despite being backed by Shell, Himont and Dow.
  • A further fraction of that is where I've spent most of my career - making pretty specialized polymers that are custom made for a limited range of applications. These are the polymers made from the incredibly versatile buildings blocks of acrylates, polyurethanes, epoxies, etc. While there are lots of opportunities, there is not a one-size-fits all solution. Each application requires a unique chemistry and that means a lot of time and development effort is put in, and failures can still happen quite often.
So when I read statements from a large new research effort such as this:
"The CSP is taking a comprehensive approach in tackling this challenging goal. Abundant and sustainable plant-derived biomass will be converted into plastics by combining new methods in synthetic green chemistry with innovative processing techniques leading to polymeric materials that can be fashioned into innumerable items of commerce. These products will be non-toxic in use, endowed with the ability to be degraded, recycled or incinerated by environmentally sound methods, and attractive to consumers from both a cost and performance standpoint."
I just have to roll my eyes. Efforts are already pretty far along for biosourcing the Big 6 without this new research. Is this group of researchers trying to develop the next great thermoplastic? Fine, but plan on 15 years and $50 million. Or are they going for a niche product, such as coatings for implanted medical devices, an area that they could do well in, but would be a drop in the bucket in terms of getting us off petroleum-based feedstocks. Yay rah rah! See our effort in Sustainable Polymers. Yay rah rah! Nothing has even happened yet and the hype-machine is already turning.

Previous Years August 6, 2013 - Where There's Smoke, There's Bad Smells August 6, 2012 - The Secrets of Oobleck Revealed - Partially August 6, 2010 - Backlash on BPA - Infertility Report

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