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Ascend targets nylon for auto applications, opening propylene monomer unit in Texas

By: Frank Esposito

April 18, 2014

HOUSTON — Materials firm Ascend Performance Materials Inc. is in full operation at its new nylon 6/6 compounding line in Florida and will break ground by the end of the year on a propylene monomer production unit in Texas.

The strategy for Houston-based Ascend is to have large, high-output compounds made by the new line in Pensacola, Fla., and specialty compounds made on its existing line in Foley, Ala., nylon vice president Scott Rook said in a recent interview in Houston.

Rook added that Ascend has been at full production on the 66 million-pound line in Pensacola — where it also makes nylon fibers — since August. The firm operates 110 million pounds of compounding capacity in Foley, and also works with toll compounders in Europe and Asia.

The Pensacola line “makes a cleaner [nylon] compound than any place in the world,” he said. “It’s more consistent on a viscosity standpoint, and the whole process is very consistent for part weight and dimensional control. It’s a very efficient way to make compounds.”

Ascend officials expect demand for nylon compounds for auto applications to continue to grow, with more work going into structural components and engine mounts. Auto demand should remain strong for nylon in under-hood parts such as radiator intakes and cooling systems. The auto market is the largest consumer of Ascend’s nylon resins and compounds.

U.S. auto production is expected to increase 4 to 5 percent this year, Rook said, with production in the Chinese auto market expected to surpass the 20 million mark for the first time.

The electrical/electronic market ranks No. 2 for Ascend’s nylon products, and more growth is expected there as well, according to nylon marketing director Dharm Vahalia.

Construction on the $1.2 billion propylene project at the Chocolate Bayou complex in Alvin, Texas, is set to begin by the end of the year, with an anticipated startup date of late 2016. Currently, Ascend “is waiting to hear back” on environmental permits for the site, according to Rook.

The unit will use propane dehydrogenation (PDH) technology, and will benefit from new supplies of propane from shale gas development throughout North America. The Ascend project is one of several PDH-based propylene expansions announced for the region. Ascend is the only major nylon maker to use propylene-based technology.

The firm currently buys propylene to make acrylonitrile for use in its nylon products.

“There’s value to be gained by doing our own propylene because of the amount of propylene by-products that are based on propane,” Rook said.

Other nylon makers use a butadiene-based process to make nylon feedstocks, but the butadiene market has been more volatile than the propylene market in recent years.

“Propylene is more stable, and it’s trending down because of these new PDH plants,” Rook said.

Propylene not consumed internally by Ascend will be sold to outside customers, officials said.

On the new product front, Ascend is aiming new resins and compounds at automotive, electrical and electronic and specialty markets such as barrier film used in food and meat packaging, as well as in stock shapes. Other new grades will be able to make higher heat-resistant parts.

Ascend also recently launched three new non-halogenated grades of its Vydyne Eco-brand compounds. The materials are available in glass-reinforced and non-reinforced grades and are being aimed at connectors, breakers and other electronics uses.

Private equity firm SK Capital Partners of New York has owned Ascend since 2009, when it bought the integrated nylon business of Solutia Inc. SK also owns plastic additives maker Addivant and acrylic sheet maker Aristech Acrylics.

Ascend employs 3,000 worldwide. The firm does not disclose financial data. Its annual sales were near $2 billion when it was acquired by SK in 2009.