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Innovation is still alive in plastics

Plenty of new polymer technology was on display at the NPE2018 trade show

by Alexander H. Tullo
May 28, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 22


A photo of people looking at film being made.
Credit: NPE2018
Attendees watch plastic film being made at NPE2018 earlier this month.

Held every three years in Orlando, the plastics trade show NPE lets attendees get up close to equipment they would otherwise encounter only on a factory floor. Machines—blaring noise and radiating heat—pop out plastic bottles and cups in booths next to the carpet-lined lanes of the Orange County Convention Center. Sleeves of plastic film multiple stories high rise from blow-molding machines. Robot arms incessantly repeat programmed routines to demonstrate their nimbleness.

In contrast, the booths of the companies supplying the plastics industry with polymers and additives are equipped with machines no grander than hissing espresso makers to prepare drinks for guests. The main attractions of their outposts are racks of brochures and plastic-molded goods—car parts, bottles, and the like—screwed into the wall or displayed in Lucite cases.

The show’s organizer, the Plastics Industry Association, claims NPE2018, held earlier this month, was the largest ever. Some 2,180 exhibitors were spread across 110,000 m2 of floor space, surpassing 2,000 booths on 90,000 m2 in 2015. Organizers have yet to release an attendance figure; more than 65,000 people came in 2015.

A big theme at the show was innovation. Although synthetic thermoplastics have been around for nearly a century, evidence abounded in the massive halls of NPE2018 that chemical companies are still capable of developing new technology.

At its booth, BASF showed off a new product that could shake up an industry that doesn’t normally change all that much. Working with partner Lightning Technologies of Oxford, Mich., the large German firm developed a shipping pallet that combines an engineered composite with a polyurea coating.

Today’s wooden shipping pallets are as prosaic as a product can get. Anyone with lumber, a chop saw, and a nail gun can make them. But they are a huge business. Lightning estimates that 2 billion pallets are in service in the U.S. alone.

BASF and Lightning claim a number of advantages to the new pallets. The coating-composite combination makes them light and durable. James Pohlman, Lightning’s vice president of international operations, said the firm sent the pallets on more than 30 trips without seeing evidence of wear. Regular wood pallets usually start falling apart by that point. “We think this is a 10-year pallet,” he said.

The coating makes the pallets easy to sanitize, important for Lightning’s target markets of health care, produce, and protein. They are equipped with radio-frequency identification tags, both for tracking and for monitoring temperature and humidity.

NatureWorks, which makes polylactic acid (PLA) under the trade name Ingeo, is also eyeing a big market: refrigerators. Refrigerator liners today are usually made of high-impact polystyrene, and refrigerator makers use about 500,000 metric tons of the tough polymer annually. Frank Diodato, business development leader for NatureWorks, wants PLA to take a piece of that pie.

A photo of a shipping pallet developed by BASF and Lightning Technologies.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
BASF helped develop the polyurea coating for Lightning Technologies' wood composite shipping pallet.

Part of the Ingeo sales pitch is the sustainability of the polymer. It is biobased and has a smaller carbon footprint than polystyrene. Ingeo is also more resistant to food oils.

Yet Diodato said the value of PLA is really in energy savings. Polystyrene refrigerator liners cover an insulating layer of polyurethane. A lot of the foam’s insulating value comes from the cyclopentane blowing agent used to create it. But polystyrene isn’t a great gas barrier. It allows ambient air to enter and cyclopentane to escape, reducing the foam’s effectiveness relatively early in the refrigerator’s lifetime.

Ingeo liners have superior barrier properties, Diodato said. According to testing by BASF’s polyurethanes division and modeling done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the difference can mean energy savings of between 7 and 13% over the life of the refrigerator.

The resin has already attracted the attention of two refrigerator manufacturers, Diodato said. One of them, Electrolux, unveiled a concept fridge in March that contains a liner incorporating Ingeo.

For companies making polymers that have been around longer, NPE2018 was an opportunity to demonstrate how they are plunging more deeply into R&D rather than allow their products to become commodities.

One was nylon 6,6 maker Ascend Performance Materials. Vikram Gopal, a veteran of GE Plastics and other big companies, joined Ascend three years ago as vice president of technology with a mandate to revamp R&D at the firm. At the time, he said, Ascend did no applications development of its own, leaving the job of nylon 6,6 innovation to its competitor DuPont. Ascend has since hired polymer chemists and chemical engineers and established pilot production facilities.

At NPE2018, the company showed off nylon grades containing nonhalogenated flame retardants as well as nylons with high ignition temperatures for electrical connectors that go into unattended appliances such as air conditioners. “We are seeing a lot of growth coming from our investment,” Gopal said. “It is starting to pay off.”

Nylon Corporation of America (NYCOA), a specialty nylon maker based in Manchester, N.H., is undergoing a similar transformation. Former International Specialty Products CEO Sunil Kumar and his daughter Monica bought NYCOA in 2013. Pratik Shah, the firm’s vice president of business development, said the new owners have expanded R&D.

At the show, NYCOA unveiled one of the fruits of that effort: a new line of polyether block amides (PEBAs). PEBAs are elastomers that combine nylon, which provides thermal and chemical resistance, and polyether polyols, which lend softness. Two other firms, Arkema and Evonik Industries, offer PEBAs based on nylon 11 and nylon 12, respectively. Shah said his firm’s PEBAs are made from nylon 6 and other nylons.

PEBAs are intended for manufacturers that need better performance than is offered by thermoplastic urethanes and copolyesters but that don’t need the exclusive properties of pricey fluoroelastomers, Shah said. “Our target was to address that market gap.” Markets for PEBAs include sporting goods like shoes and lacrosse heads and auto parts such as hot air ducts.

Soon, NYCOA will unveil a nylon copolymer intended to substitute for nylon 11 and 12. To accommodate the expected growth from all of its new products, the firm plans to double specialty polymer capacity at its Manchester plant.

Much of the innovation on display at the show came from the specialty chemical companies that supply additives to plastics makers. Many of their new products aim to improve plastics’ sustainability.

Indianapolis-based specialty chemical maker Vertellus launched two additives at NPE2018. One is ZeMac Link NP, a compatibilizer that connects the terminal amine group of various nylons with the terminal hydroxyl group of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Ashok M. Adur, commercial development director for plastics at Vertellus, said the technology allows a plastics processor to blend up to 30% PET—even recycled PET, such as from old soda bottles—into nylon while retaining 90-95% of nylon’s properties. Vertellus, which has filed a patent, is keeping the details of the chemistry under wraps.

The specialty chemical company is targeting markets such as hand tools, office furniture, and weed-whacker line with the technology. With prices for nylon 6 and 6,6 relatively high, the prospect of mixing in postconsumer PET is generating a lot of interest from potential clients, he said.

Another technology, ZeMac Extend P, links the hydroxyl groups of PET, increasing molecular weight and the intrinsic viscosity of the polymer. Multiple heat cycles break down PET during processing, limiting what recycled PET can be used for. ZeMac Extend P patches those polymers back together, Adur said, opening the possibilities for recycled PET.

“These days, the amount of scrap PET, postconsumer, is so high that the traditional applications that it goes into, like polyester clothing or carpet, are not going to be able to absorb all of it,” Adur said. The technology is currently focused on injection molding applications but in a couple of years could help PET be recycled back into bottles, he noted.

At the show, Milliken Chemical launched its DeltaMax Performance Modifier, which is likewise aimed at improving the value of recycled resin. According to Prem Patel, global strategy and business development manager for Milliken’s plastic additives business, a longtime trade-off for polypropylene users is that blending in ethylene copolymer elastomers improves impact resistance but decreases melt flow, thus slowing molding times and increasing costs.

DeltaMax Performance Modifier creates free radicals in the polypropylene that attach to the elastomer. Linking the two helps finely disperse the elastomer in the polypropylene. The molten resin flows better, improving molding productivity.

DeltaMax can also help boost the impact and melt-flow properties of postconsumer resins that might originate from food containers and other single-use plastics, Patel said, allowing them to be “upcycled” into durable goods.

Milliken also unveiled a nucleating agent, Hyperform HPN-715, that boosts the stiffness and heat deflection temperature of polypropylene. Improving these properties might allow polypropylene to take business away from nylon in automotive applications or from styrenic resins in small appliances.

With production of polypropylene burgeoning in the U.S. because of low-cost propane feedstock extracted from shale, now is a good time to improve the polymer’s appeal, said Emily Blair, Milliken’s business development manager for plastic additives. “So for Milliken, as a strategy, if we can continue to enhance the properties that are possible with polypropylene from every angle, then we can broaden the space in which polypropylene can be used.”


Sustainability was also a theme at Clariant’s booth. For example, the show was the site of the specialty chemical company’s North American launch of Licocare RBW, a lubricant and dispersing agent made from rice bran wax.

Martin P. J. John, Clariant’s vice president of performance additives, said the product is derived from bran left over from rice processing. A partner in Asia crushes the bran to extract edible oils and sells the residual wax to Clariant, which converts it into an additive. Licocare RBW’s main use is in nylon, where it improves mechanical properties and provides a nice surface finish.

Anyone looking for something new wasn’t bored at NPE2018. And to hear exhibitors, the plastics industry should have a lot to talk about at the next show, in 2021. “The interesting part of this field is that everything is still very new and very fresh,” Ascend’s Gopal said. “We find every day how little we know. We find more innovative ways to do things.”


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