Issue Date: October 26, 2009
The men and women in the polyurethanes business—people who make insulating foams and foam raw materials such as methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) and polyols—have a message they want to get out. They say the deployment of technologies now at their disposal is an effective way to save massive amounts of energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Federal and state governments are starting to hear the message. They are providing incentives and exploring stringent building codes to boost energy efficiency. The result, polyurethane boosters say, can be a win-win for everyone: greater energy independence for the U.S. and more profits for their industry.
In recent years, the chemical industry has been championing its products as being part of the greenhouse gas solution, not the problem. The International Council of Chemical Associations, an organization that includes the American Chemistry Council (ACC), sponsored a study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. showing that for every unit of greenhouse gas released by the chemical industry, two units are saved through the use of chemical products.
Released in July, the study found that building insulation foam is the biggest chemical contributor to greenhouse gas reduction, saving 233 units of the gases for every unit of emissions. ACC President Calvin M. Dooley touted these findings to reporters before the opening of the Polyurethanes 2009 Technical Conference, organized earlier this month at the National Harbor, in Prince George’s County, Md., by ACC’s Center for the Polyurethanes Industry.
“When you look at the polyurethane and polyisocyanurate sectors, they are coming up with many of the solutions to make our economy more energy efficient,” Dooley told reporters. “We can make a compelling argument that we have a negative carbon footprint.”
The foams cited in the McKinsey report are based on polystyrene, polyurethanes, and polyisocyanurates. The latter materials are made more fire resistant than ordinary polyurethanes by incorporating different polyols and more MDI. Polyurethane and polyisocyanurate foams are either sprayed onto walls or sold in boards. “Polyurethane rigid foams are able to achieve better insulation values in a given thickness than any of the other insulation materials used commercially,” said Brian Powers, global market leader for construction polyurethane systems at Dow Chemical.
Such performance is measured in a ratio called the R-value, which is the difference in temperature between the insulated space and the outside environment divided by the flux of heat from the insulated space. According to the Department of Energy, polyurethane board’s R-value is 7 to 8 per inch of thickness. Polystyrene foam, in contrast, has an R-value of 3.8 to 5 per inch.
Given that 40% of U.S. energy is used in buildings, polyurethanes should be one of the first responses to the greenhouse gas problem, argued Monica Ntiru Karamagi, an insulation marketing manager at Huntsman Corp. “We shouldn’t be putting any photovoltaics in a building that doesn’t have the right building envelope,” she said. “Before you start generating new forms of energy, use the traditional ones to their optimum.”
Dow’s Powers said polyurethanes have benefited from energy conservation and will continue to do so. “There has been a shift over many years in developed nations toward greater use of high-performance insulation materials, and polyurethanes have been a disproportionate beneficiary of that trend,” he says. The result is that the growth of polyurethanes in construction applications exceeds growth in the overall gross domestic product (GDP), Powers added.
The recession, spurred in large part by the collapse of the housing sector, has been a setback for polyurethanes, Powers admitted. But he noted that they have fared better than other construction materials. “The use of polyurethanes within the building envelope is probably higher today than before the crisis,” he said.
Indeed, polyurethane demand from the construction market held up at least through the onset of the recession. According to a biennial survey by Angela Austin, a market researcher with IAL Consultants, polyurethane raw material sales for construction in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico were 2.3 billion lb in 2008, down just a hair from 2006. Overall, polyurethane demand in the region was 6.6 billion lb in 2008.
Polyurethane makers think government energy-efficiency incentives will spell a bright future for them. “Now that the government has entered the debate and is seriously looking to develop a national energy strategy, we are getting the right package of codes and incentives,” Huntsman’s Karamagi told C&EN.
At the conference, Richard M. Gold, a lobbyist with Holland & Knight and counsel to ACC, profiled provisions of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 that will benefit the polyurethanes industry. He highlighted a tax credit of up to $1,500 for residential weatherization projects and $3.2 billion in grants to states for energy-efficiency projects.
The industry is just as excited about how it might benefit from the regulatory environment. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating & Air-Conditioning Engineers is mulling new standards, called ASHRAE 90.1 2010, that would increase the amount of insulation required for new buildings.
Jared O. Blum, president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association, said the new standards will nearly double the amount of insulation needed for new buildings from the levels that were allowable until 2004. But he notes that adoption will take a long time. Only 13 states have adopted or promised to adopt the standards ASHRAE released in 2007.
Although the latest standards won’t be adopted for a few years, when they are it will be huge for polyurethanes and polyisocyanurates, Blum said. “The market to be filled by the products is so significant that every company in the business should be looking at a game plan about how they are going to fulfill the need,” he said.
In a presentation at the conference, Jerry Phelan, market manager for polyisocyanurates at Bayer MaterialScience, said the new standards could mean a market for polyurethanes in roofing of 10.7 billion board feet, a 75% increase from today’s levels. For walls, the market could increase five times to 1 billion board feet. A board foot is 1 sq ft of board 1 inch thick; every billion board feet of polyurethane foam board consumes about 200 million lb of polyurethane chemicals. Phelan noted that his numbers reflect only potential; other insulation materials, such as fiberglass and polystyrene, will capture some of the new insulation market.
If adopted by 2010, the new codes will save 4.4 trillion Btu of energy by 2030, Phelan predicted. In comparison, he said, the Cash for Clunkers auto trade-in program saved just 28.8 billion Btu of energy.
There’s a lot of excitement for polyurethanes—rare for materials that have been around for half a century. “We project it’s going to continue to grow faster than GDP,” Dow’s Powers said. “Any time you have a part of the chemical industry that you can claim that about, it is going to attract interest and continued investment.”
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