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Azdel Inc., a compounder co-owned by GE Plastics and PPG Industries Inc., plans to purchase Exxon Chemical Co.'s Taffen composites business to more than double its capacity to make chopped-fiber materials.

Azdel, based in Shelby, N.C., announced the agreement Feb. 6 to buy Exxon's Taffen thermoplastic compounding operation. The sale includes a 50,000-square-foot plant in Lynchburg, Va., related technology, customer lists and the Taffen trade name.

Terms of the agreement, which is expected to be completed by the end of March, were not disclosed.

The sale will sharply boost Azdel's capability to produce chopped fibers, which can be used to make interior automotive components, such as noise and heat shields, instrument panels, seat backs, door panels and headliners. Chopped thermoplastic fibers are used frequently in Europe to replace steel and sheet molding compound and are becoming more prevalent in North America, said Azdel President Frank O'Neill.

``It's the company's highest growth area,'' O'Neill said. ``As we've moved into new and emerging markets, we found that we needed additional resources to process the material. The Lynchburg plant will help us meet the fast-growing demand.''

Azdel, which also makes continuous, random and unidirectional materials, compounds the glass fibers coming from Pittsburgh-based PPG with polypropylene from a variety of resin suppliers. The chopped strands are no more than two millimeters thick, but they provide structural strength during compression molding, thermoforming or stamping, O'Neill said.

Azdel currently produces its chopped-fiber line at its Dalton, Mass., plant, which has a 10-million-pound capacity.

The 6-year-old Lynchburg plant, which has 40 employees, will be added as a second chopped-fiber processing plant. The facility has a capacity of 16.5 million pounds. The plant uses a continuous laminator and double-belt press to manufacture the chopped-fiber product.

Azdel plans to convert the Lynchburg plant's technology, which now uses a water-based process, to Azdel's patented Radlite foam-based technology.

O'Neill said the company has not determined whether it will keep the Taffen trade name.

The Taffen line was launched in 1991 after Houston-based Exxon Chemical purchased the technology from Paris papermaker Arjo-Marie. At the time, the technology had not been used in the automotive industry.

Exxon Chemical spokeswoman Janis Grant said the sale will help the company focus on its core line of engineered polyolefins and metallocene products.

Last fall, Exxon completed a 60 percent expansion of its Baytown, Texas, facility that currently stands at 1.6 million square feet.

``It wasn't an easy decision to sell Taffen because it's been profitable for us,'' Grant said. ``But it's a highly specialized process that's not entirely connected to our core products.''

Azdel compounds continuous-strand materials at plants in Shelby, N.C., and Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands.