As high-performance materials follow the path taken by some commodity resins, farming could replace drilling as suppliers rely more on plants than oil or gas for feedstocks.
Commodity resins like polyolefins and PET have been in the forefront of biobased and recycled-content news over the last five to 10 years, but some engineering thermoplastics have been catching up. To ensure that such sustainable plastics are widely adopted, suppliers have been aiming to make them comparable to conventional resins in performance and cost-effectiveness.
Driven by markets such as packaging, automotive, electronics, consumer goods, and medical devices, there has been increasing activity among suppliers of engineering resins to develop biosourced feedstocks from plant oils, sugars, or starches to synthesize new monomers for some of their key materials. The emphasis by several companies has been on developing sugar sources from crop waste or other renewable chemicals from non-food biomass. Most of the commercial activity has been focused on nylons and polyesters, though some has been directed toward higher-end TPEs and TPUs.
Attesting to these trends were presentations at the “Re-Invention of Plastics via renewable Chemicals” conference by Innoplast Solutions, Inc., held in Miami this past January. Presenters included such leaders in this arena as DuPont, Wilmington, Del., Arkema, King of Prussia, Pa., DSM Engineering Plastics, Birmingham, Mich., and China’s Cathay Industrial Biotech (U.S. office in Powell, Ohio), each of which addressed its newest activities and future aims.
Other companies active in biobased engineering-resin development include BASF, Florham Park, N.J., Evonik, Parsippany, N.J., Solvay Specialty Polymers, Alpharetta, Ga., Invista, Wichita, Kan., and Lanxess, Pittsburgh. Still others are Lubrizol Engineered Polymers, Cleveland, Elevance Renewable Sciences, Woodbridge, Ill., and Rennovia, Santa Clara, Calif.
Most of these developments entail partnerships with, or acquisitions of, agricultural business concerns. An early example is Cathay Dupont Award, which divested Conoco in 1999 and purchased Pioneer Seed, becoming a world leader in agri-business. The company reported that this sector accounted for 32% of sales in 2013, with performance chemicals representing 19%. (The latter is being spun off this year.)