DuPont's Lindner: Auto fuel targets creating opportunity

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DuPont Co. Patrick Lindner, president of the performance polymers division of DuPont Co.

As the new president of DuPont Co.’s Performance Polymers division, Patrick Lindner says he sees applications development as a big part of the company’s future.

Lindner has been with DuPont since 1996, first working as a chemist in the company’s fluoropolymers business and later holding leadership positions in a variety of areas including marketing, corporate plans and DuPont’s electronics business.

Plastics News sat down with Lindner to discuss his division’s work in automotive plastics.

Q: Tell us about DuPont’s work in the automotive industry.

Linder: The automotive industry is a good percentage of our business. That business is so dynamic right now. It went through obviously the downturn in 2008, but it’s come back very strong all around the world, and the technology is changing very rapidly. The targets around fuel efficiency are really creating new opportunities for new materials. The U.S. has a target in 2025 of getting to 54.5 miles per gallon; the average in 2013 was about 24 miles per gallon. So you’re talking about a huge change over the course of 10 to 12 years to get to those standards. And for us, that means new materials, engines are getting smaller, they’re getting hotter, more efficient. … So we’re seeing a lot of adoption of our products in those areas.

Q: Lightweighting is really big right now, but it’s more than simple material substitution. How is DuPont pushing design for those lightweighting efforts?

Linder: Lightweighting is very important. I’ve been hearing that from each and every one of our partners, OEMs as well as Tier 1 suppliers in automotive, that managing this is going to be a key way to get fuel efficiency down. So one of the key things for us is that we take a concept from our customer or the OEMs … they’ll come to us just with a concept, and then we have the ability to start to model that, and I think this is a real strength of what we do.

We’re developing an oil pan application for large trucks that basically takes 50 percent of the weight out of that oil pan. And as you might imagine, one of the critical things to do that [is to] obviously hold the oil, but also so that in a way, since this sits at a place that’s exposed to the elements, and very different temperatures, make sure that it has the impact resistance of what a steel-based pan would. Because obviously you don’t want to compromise quality in taking the weight out. And so that’s an application — we have several others — where we’ve been able to do that. And those applications, provided they’re successful, will continue hopefully well into the future; sometimes these applications go for decades or even longer.

DuPont Co. An oil pan using DuPont's Zytel resin, developed for the commercial truck industry.

Q: And you’re able to integrate some other things into an oil pan, like the seals, and different tubing.

Linder: It’s huge, we have a broad base of polymers and high temperature products that are great for the impact resistance and other properties associated with the pan itself. The seal has to be really good, so the surface of the pan has to be great, which is a challenge in plastics, really a big challenge. So we do that through our design, make sure that we’ve got the right molding capability. Then you have to seal it. And we also have elastomers, which are softer, and they form great gaskets, and they’re also really chemical resistant. So that’s the other thing, I think, as we go through applications development, it’s really exciting for us to say to the customer, “OK, we can do the pan, but we can also do the gaskets, and seal those effectively.”

Lightweighting is a big driver for fuel efficiency, but our customers always come to us and say, we want total cost of operation or total system cost reduced, because cost is a big important thing as they go forward. And for us, we find that lightweighting and total system cost reduction match up very nicely. Because you can take a product which has a system that has multiple components and maybe convert them into just one, reduce the weight and reduce the total cost for the OEM, for the customer.

Q: Can you give us an overview of where you’re at as far as integrating plastics into more under-the-hood functions?

Linder: A good portion of our business is certainly under the hood, and in the powertrain, and engines. I think the biggest trend that’s happening in the engines today is — and this is all being driven by the same trend around fuel efficiency — a lot of the engines are now being turbocharged, which allows them to downsize them and become more important. And that requires different technology, because when you do that you have cool air coming in and then hot air coming out. We have materials that can serve in both, but mainly we’re targeting that hot air that comes out the exhaust — very corrosive and that sort of thing. So as one example of an application, we’ve taken a multi-component steel system and replaced it with our high-temperature products, and then we use our elastomer, because these now have to fit around corners. Steel as you can imagine, bending it around corners is not easy, and you have to pre-fabricate it, and hope it fits. We have the ability now with our elastomers, to now take a bendable product, take a hose which is very chemically resistant, withstands hot temperatures, and bend it around a corner.

So now what they’ve been able to do, OEMs and Tier 1s supplying this, they’re able to take a fairly rigid, heavy product and come up with one that has a lower total systems cost and is lighter-weight, and easier to install and all of that. So that’s a good example.

Q: What are you hearing from people regarding the timing pressure around the fuel efficiency standards?

Linder: One of the things I’ve been hearing about is timing, and I think it’s important, is that there’s going to be, in the U.S., a mid-term check in 2016. It’ll start in 2016 and go into 2017, and that’s going to be a really important effort by the global producers who are around the world and sell into the United States market in particular, but obviously also the big manufacturers in the U.S. that have been here and are based here. And that check will look at, is 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 the right target? If not, what might it be? And there’s questions around will it stay at that target and move out in terms of timing? Or will it stay at the 2025 timeline but perhaps reduce the target a little bit? Or keep it right where it is and let innovation drive the way. And so I think that’s going to be a very interesting debate, and it’s going to be strongly influenced by what the state-of-the-art technology is.

We’re talking a lot about combustion engines here, but there’s a whole other area of hybrid and electric. And also where these OEMs are asking for us, the big brand owners around the world are asking us to bring new materials, because it’s a completely different set of materials required. So that’s also going to work into the equation, but it’s pretty clear, maybe with the exception of Japan, that there’s a lot of focus on engine design and lightweighting and getting the engines themselves to be more effcient and building off of that base. How far they can take that? Depends on how the entire industry works together to solve those issues. For us, that’s right in our sweet spot.