In Antwerp, Dupont has launched the prototype of what could be a series of production facilities for customized titanium dioxide products.
The company's Customizer technology finishes TiO2 particles with up to four different organic or inorganic coatings to enhance the functionality of the white pigment. For example, performance characteristics such as dispersibility, light fastness, stability, and hydrophilicity or -phobicity can be modified to change the way the compound performs in a system.
Modification comes through surface treatments involving a variety of chemistries, says Bernd Zimmermann, global marketing manager for customized products at DuPont Titanium Technologies (DTT). He cites as examples the use of silanes or siloxanes; coupling agents, alcohols, and carboxyl groups; and reactive nitrogen carriers such as amines and amides. The result, he adds, is a material that is not only a pigment but also a processing aid or other performance additive.
And given the size of the Antwerp facility, such customizing can be done in relatively small quantities--a distinct departure for an industry used to thinking in hundreds of thousands of metric tons per year. "We can work with customer requests starting at 20 tons--that is very small," Zimmermann says. "Usually you have to start with 1,000 metric tons to make any money."
DuPont expects that the 30,000-metric-ton-per-year unit, which cost slightly more than $5 million to build, will be sold out in about three years, says Michael A. Saltzberg, DTT's director of global business development. Moreover, he adds, it will start adding to the bottom line this year. DuPont is already running customer trials with three products that have been developed. The firm has about eight nondisclosure agreements and another 10 pending signature.
"If the Customizer concept works," Saltzberg says, "the next plant will go to another area--maybe to China, maybe to Latin America. We want to add anywhere from a 10 to 100% premium to basic TiO2 prices," which are less than $1.00 per lb. "We are talking [sales of] a few million this year, and a few tens of millions over the next few years."
Commenting on the overall TiO2 business, Ian Edwards, global business director for DTT, notes: "We were reasonably optimistic about 2003--we shouldn't have been. Now, however, we are reasonably optimistic about 2004." One reason, he suggests, is the increasing importance of the Asian market, which is showing signs of recovery.
"Fifteen years ago, Europe and the U.S. were the essence of the market," he says. "Now Asia is larger than the U.S., and within two or three years it will overtake Europe."
According to Saltzberg, the customizing concept is one way the TiO2 unit can meet the challenge that all DuPont businesses have been given: 6% growth in sales and 10% growth in earnings per year--a particularly difficult challenge for what is undeniably a mature industry.
The concept also supports DuPont's work in branding by giving its TiO2 customers a little extra technology for their own marketing efforts. The company has done this in the past with, for example, Teflon coatings for nonstick cookware and soil-release coatings for textiles such as tablecloths. White pigments that do more than make products white are its next frontier.