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SAN ANTONIO—DuPont Co.'s Versipol-brand polyethylene catalysts may sound like a sonic boom in the plastics industry, but company officials said it will be several years before the products' echoes are heard commercially.

Versipol, developed in cooperation with researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, already is displaying better polymerization rates than standard Ziegler-Natta catalysts and is close to approaching polymerization rates posted by metallocene catalysts, according to DuPont research manager Steven Ittel.

And although Ittel said Versipol will not be commercially available for several more years, he believes its patent situation will be smoother than the bumpy road metallocene catalysts have traveled, thanks to a mammoth 499-page patent application filed in January 1995. Ittel said that application may produce as many as 20 patents for various forms of the Versipol catalyst.

``I'm very impressed with what this technology will do,'' Ittel said in a May 27 telephone interview. ``And our patent filings are the first that I'm aware of.''

Versipol's first commercial applications are likely to be in low-volume specialty products, such as Naflon, Teflon or other fluoropolymers, Ittel said. He declined to identify possible end uses for the product.

Ittel claimed Versipol also could provide a cost advantage by replacing such copolymers as hexene or octene. Versipol's properties are complementary to low or linear low density PE resins, according to Ittel, and it also can be used to make high-branch molecules such as those found in ethylene propylene diene monomer synthetic rubber.

Company officials previously had said Versipol technology may broaden applications while also lowering prices for polymers. The technology also may produce new materials that would make some mechanical constructions obsolete. For example, the new polymers could reproduce the performance of multilayer constructions.

The research that yielded Versipol began in 1993 as an attempt to develop ethylene copolymers with polar monomers that could create stronger and less-expensive materials.

For now, DuPont plans to proceed with larger-scale pilot and plant tests, Ittel said.

But some in the plastics industry are not sure things will be easy for Versipol.

Consultant Balaji Singh, president of Houston-based Chemical Market Resources Inc., said DuPont's lack of recent experience with polyolefin technology may affect Versipol's chances for success.

Versipol ``will have a great dependency on how well [DuPont] puts it together, since they have no track record,'' said Singh, whose firm organized the recent Flexpo '97 seminar in San Antonio, where Ittel presented a paper on Versipol.

Ittel admitted his company faces a challenge in that area, since it has not had a polyolefin presence since selling its Sclairtech-brand PE business to Novacor Chemicals Ltd. two years ago.

Versipol has ``several interesting features,'' including its ability to incorporate polar comonomers, such as carbon dioxide and vinyl acetate, according to Gregory McPike, president and chief executive officer of the Univation Technologies metallocene joint venture, based in Houston.

McPike conceded that metallocenes don't have that ability, but he added that characteristic ``has no value to the large-volume polypropylene and polyethylene buyer.''