By: Frank Esposito
April 18, 2012
DETROIT (April 18, 3:05 p.m. ET) — The looming global shortage in nylon 12 resin might be putting automakers in a tough spot, but it also could create opportunities for producers of other grades of nylon.
Industry veterans contacted this week by Plastics News cited nylon 6/10, 6/11, 6/12 and 10/10 as possible replacements for nylon 12 in fuel line applications and other auto-related uses.
The nylon 12 market has been in turmoil since March 31, when an explosion and fire at a plant making CDT, a nylon 12 feedstock, resulted in two deaths and placed severe limits on nylon 12 production. The plant in Marl, Germany, is owned and operated by Evonik Industries AG.
Nylon 12 has taken on an increasing percentage of global auto fuel lines in recent years for several reasons, including increased use of ethanol, sources said. Auto suppliers hosted a rare summit in the Detroit area on April 17 to address the situation.
Radici Plastics USA has been contacted by numerous nylon 12 processors in recent weeks looking for a nylon 12 replacement, marketing manager Bill Atwood said in an April 18 phone interview. Radici has responded by offering its nylon 6/10 materials, which were developed to compete with nylon 12, he explained.
Radici’s nylon 6/10 can provide good moisture absorption and resistance to salt and chemicals, added Atwood, who attended the supplier summit. It’s also a sustainable material, since 60 percent of its content comes from castor beans.
Global plastics and chemicals giant DuPont is offering its Zytel-brand nylon 6/6 and high-temperature nylon — as well as Hytrel-brand thermoplastic elastomer — as potential replacements for nylon 12, a spokesperson with the Wilmington, Del.-based firm said. DuPont’s specialty nylon 6/10, 6/12 and 10/10 grades also might provide options.
“We are working with customers to identify alternatives that may work in their application,” the spokeswoman said. “It depends on which application and it’s not limited to just those materials. There likely won’t be a ‘one answer fits all’ solution.”
At Chase Plastic Service Inc., a resin distribution firm in Clarkston, Mich., owner Kevin Chase said that the firm has been offering 6/12 as a possible replacement to processors who are seeking nylon 12. Chase Plastics previously carried nylon 12, but has not had it regularly in stock since supplies began to tighten a couple of years ago, Kevin Chase said.
“This [shortage] is really hitting the majors, more than the smaller processors,” he added.
Substituting other materials in intense auto applications also requires testing of up to 5,000 hours, Atwood said. He said he’s unsure if automakers would reduce those limits because of the current nylon 12 scenario.
In most cases, replacement materials would cost a bit less than nylon 12, which sources said was selling for at least $5 per pound, even before the accident in Germany. The material had sold for around $4 per pound just a couple of years ago, but tightness and increased demand drove the price up, sources added.
One issue that could complicate finding a nylon 12 replacement, according to market analyst Paul Blanchard, is the ability to make fuel lines and tubing to the same dimensions as nylon 12.
“This gets more complicated because we’re talking about systems with multi-layer tubes,” said Blanchard, who is with IHS Chemical in Houston. “Each has a different wall thickness, and changing material can change the critical dimensions of the part.”
Global nylon 12 production stands at no more than 100 million pounds, split between Evonik, Arkema Group, Ube Industries Ltd. and EMS-Grivory, according to Blanchard. Of those four, Blanchard said that Evonik may be the only one producing its own CDT feedstock.
BASF SE and Invista also produce CDT, he said.
In North America, nylon 12 compounds are made by Arkema at a plant in Birdsboro, Pa., while EMS-Grivory produces nylon 12 resins and compounds in Sumter, S.C.
The current nylon 12 situation “points out again how even the largest and most savvy buyers, such as Tier 1 automotive suppliers, can be surprised by ‘gotchas’ lurking in the raw materials supply chain,” said Phil Karig, owner of the Mathelin Bay Associates consulting firm in St. Louis.
He added that there was “danger inherent” in having Arkema dependent on Evonik for “critical raw materials” when they both were selling into the same market.
Market analyst Greg Smith added that the nylon 12 shortage is “a very difficult situation,” because the resin is sole-specified into a lot of applications.
Nylon 12 “is a good material because of its heat characteristics and physical characteristics,” said Smith, who is with Resin Technology Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas. “But a lot of the time it takes a situation like this to communicate that it’s best to have more than one material available.”
The current nylon 12 turmoil has drawn widespread media coverage and required even officials with the Big 3 U.S. automakers to comment on what’s essentially a niche resin.
Nylon 12 “has been around for a long time, and had been a sleepy little guy until now,” Blanchard said.