Metallocene catalyst technology is going to be the greatest boon to the plastics industry since the introduction of linear low density polyethylene. Or is it?
Metallocenes may prove to be a blessing or a boondoggle, depending on who you listen to: representatives of Dow Chemical Co., Exxon Chemical Co., Mobil Polymers, and the 47 other companies that have, during the past 10 years, sunk nearly $3.2 billion into research and development for metallocene catalysts - or those companies' competitors.
Evidence still is being presented on both sides, and it may take a while for a determination.
Ken Sinclair, a senior consultant for polyolefin products for SRI International, an industry consulting firm based in Menlo Park, Calif., is optimistic.
Sinclair believes polyolefins made with metallocene catalysts will be competitive with existing polymers, and will provide huge profit for the companies that have invested in them.
All that is needed, he said, is for those firms to begin mass production, a goal they are moving toward today. He believes those firms will gain an edge by learning to manipulate catalysts in ways that can be adopted for other polymers.
Naysayers, however, point tofailures of ballyhooed technologies for acrylics - an-nouncements made in the 1980s by Rohm & Haas Co. of Philadelphia and DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del. - that did not produce the expected results, yet ate up huge research investments.
Lou Maresca, vice president of technology for Geon Co. of Cleveland, and Howard Rappaport, PE market development manager for Montell Polyolefins of North America, are not naysayers. However, they both represent companies whose products will compete with polymers made with metallocene cata-lysts: Maresca's firm is a leading PVC producer, and Rappaport's makes PE and polypropylene using traditional catalyst systems.
Maresca said metallocene development runs contrary to trends in the 1980s, when it was believed new resins would be made in extruders, not reactors.
He said PVC has a well-developed, cheaply made, single polymer backbone that is versatile and can be compounded quickly and cheaply. Because of those attributes, and continuing developments in performance, Maresca said he does not believe PVC will lose markets or market share to costly polymers made with metallocene catalysts.
Rappaport is equally circumspect: ``If I had spent as much money to develop a product, I would be saying the same things they are,'' he said. ``I respect the products and their performance characteristics, but I question how quickly the companies can bring them to market, how competitive ... and how effective they will be in the market.
``In five to 10 years, it is possible for things to come together to make these products more competitive, but it depends on how healthy the market remains. I believe they will evolve and ... become competitive, but only after they compete in niche markets and gain business there.''