Issue Date: August 24, 2009
Standing The Heat
For nearly half a century, beginning around the 1930s, the plastics industry enjoyed one success after another in finding markets for new polymers. Polyethylene, polycarbonate, and other resins made short work of replacing traditional materials such as metal, paper, glass, and wood.
In the 1980s, though, the industry’s luck ran dry, and since then companies have failed time and again to launch new-to-the-world polymers. New polymers now have to compete against already-established plastics. Even if a new material is technically better than an existing one, it has to provide enough additional value to induce designers to switch.
DSM is cultivating a business for its new Stanyl ForTii resins bearing all of this in mind. Company executives believe they know the markets they are targeting well enough to succeed, and they contend that the prospects are already promising.
The name Stanyl ForTii is a play on “4T,” a reference to the polymer’s two main monomers, tetramethylene diamine (the 4) and terephthalic acid (the T). It was invented to improve on the properties of DSM’s Stanyl 4,6, a high-heat polyamide made from tetramethylene diamine and adipic acid.
Stanyl 4,6 was launched in 1990 and is one of the rare polymers that has succeeded in recent years. It improves on polyamide properties, most notably heat resistance, and contends in electrical connector and other applications with polybutylene terephthalate and even liquid-crystal polymers (LCPs), a family of high-end polyesters. “We have done this successfully before, and we are very confident that we can do it again,” says Wilma Nijenhuis, research and technology manager at DSM Engineering Plastics.
In the early 2000s, Nijenhuis says, DSM was looking to improve Stanyl 4,6’s heat resistance and also reduce its moisture absorption, a tendency that undermines the dimensional stability and mechanical strength of many polyamides. The company first tried to solve these problems with additives and then by adding new monomers to the polymer backbone. It started working with a tetramethylene diamine/terephthalic acid polymer but found that the highly crystalline resin was too heat resistant, making it impossible to process.
In 2005, the company realized it could add other monomers to modify the new polymer and solve the processing problem. The result was Stanyl ForTii. Serious about establishing the resin as a new business, DSM opened a market development plant in Geleen, the Netherlands, in 2008. Because of positive customer response, the firm is quadrupling capacity by the end of this year.
Nijenhuis is aware of the risks. Earlier in her career, as a scientist with Shell Chemicals, she witnessed firsthand a classic polymer failure. Carilon was an aliphatic polyketone Shell developed when it was looking for industrial uses of carbon monoxide. Carilon had promising attributes such as stiffness, heat resistance, and, mostly notably, chemical resistance. The latter property prompted Shell to aggressively pursue gas-tank applications, a project that Nijenhuis worked on directly.
In 1998, Shell started construction on a 55 million-lb-per-year Carilon plant in Geismar, La. But its corporate strategy soon changed. Shell decided to focus on commodity petrochemicals, and it divested marketing-intensive businesses such as epoxy resins, block copolymers, and polyethylene terephthalate. The company wrote off the Carilon business when it couldn’t find a buyer. “Nobody in polymer-land is willing to buy a new business with a plant that hasn’t even made one granule yet,” Nijenhuis says.
Carilon had excellent properties that were “a good fit in certain areas,” she says, but it failed because Shell didn’t know the markets well enough. “It was a totally new thing for them,” she recalls. “It wasn’t anything like the polymers they were making and selling at the time.”
Writing off the business wasn’t such a big deal for Shell, an Anglo-Dutch firm that is one of the world’s largest companies, Nijenhuis notes. “If you look at the impact of the decision on all of Shell’s business, it wasn’t even noticeable,” she says. “Polymers within Shell were extremely small, and a business like Carilon was almost nonexistent.”
This contrasts sharply with the Dutch firm that Nijenhuis now works for, which is smaller, more committed to the polymer business, and knows high-end engineering polymers better. “We would not have so easily written off such a promising business,” she says.
With Stanyl 4,6, DSM already competes with resins such as LCPs, so it knows the properties needed to capture a bigger share of the high-end polymer market, says Tamim P. Sidiki, innovation program manager at DSM Engineering Plastics. He says DSM is after applications that are more ambitious than the ones that it pursues with Stanyl 4,6. It is now going after central processing unit sockets as well as bobbins and notebook computer memory modules, which for the most part are made with LCPs. “No polyamides have so far been successful in these areas,” he notes.
Sidiki sees an opening in the increasing miniaturization of cell phones and other electronic gadgets. This trend has exposed LCPs’ faults, namely their tendency to warp and their weakness along a part’s weld line—a seam where molten resin has joined together to make a continuous surface. LCPs tend to break at the weld line, and products have to be redesigned to work around the problem.
ForTii’s improved properties over Stanyl 4,6 enable it to vie with, and even surpass, LCPs in their traditional markets, Sidiki says. Stanyl 4,6’s melting point is 295 °C, whereas ForTii retains its physical properties up to its melting point of 325 °C. This allows the resin to stand up to the high heat of circuit-board soldering. It is also dimensionally stable enough for use in precision components. Given its properties and strength, customers can just use ForTii rather than design around LCPs’ weaknesses, Sidiki says.
Nijenhuis adds that ForTii is more compatible with halogen-free circuit-board technology than LCPs are. She contends that LCP components tend to warp in the soldering process (at temperatures of up to 280 °C) that is required to make such halogen-free boards. However, LCP makers such as Ticona and DuPont have been coming out with new grades that warp less.
Paul Blanchard, North American director of engineering resins for the Houston-based consulting firm Chemical Market Associates Inc., says ForTii may hold promise. “If low moisture absorption is part of its performance, thereby improving dimensional stability, then the product, with appropriate flame retardance and good economics, could have a fit in connectors for surface-mount assembly processes where the usual polyester connector products cannot stand the heat,” he says.
Sidiki claims the feedback thus far from customers has been positive. He says DSM has won not only technical approvals for the polymer but also some actual commercial applications. If this trend continues, DSM might once again successfully avoid the pitfalls of launching a new polymer.
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