DUSSELDORF, GERMANY - Although they agree that production of polyolefins made with metallocene catalyst technology is growing at significant rates, two of the industries' leading consultants do not agree on how far metallocene resins will penetrate markets for polyolefins. Kenneth Sinclair, principal of STA Research of Sunnyvale, Calif., is bullish on his outlook for metallocene resins. He expects them to be used in 12-13 percent of all applications for polyolefins by the year 2000. In that year, Sinclair said, 176 billion pounds of polyolefins will be used.
Don F. Bari, vice president for technology for Chem Systems Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y., is not as bullish.Bari expects metallocene resins to be used in less than 2 percent of all applications for polyolefins by 2000.
Sinclair and Bari made their predictions in back-to-back talks March 6 at the second international congress on metallocene polymers, sponsored by Schotland Business Research Inc. in Dusseldorf. The conference - Metallocenes '96 - was held March 6-7. It attracted 360 re-searchers from universities and corporations, and executives from resin suppliers and processors.
Bari said he based his predictions on talks with processors around the world who indicated to him that the demand for metallocene resins is not growing significantly.
Also, Bari said he expects new technologies to foster increased competition between polymers, especially from existing polyolefins, while limiting the applications for metallocene resins.
``The polyolefin business is in a period of dynamic structural changes as a result of some key developments,'' Bari said.
Those developments include new technologies that promise to make existing linear low density polyethylene resins easier to process, and condensing-mode technologies for existing PE production reactors that promise to increase capacity dramatically, he said.
Those technological improvements are superimposed on changes in market structures in South America, Eastern Europe and Asia; the restructuring of economies in Western Europe; increased free trade throughout the world; and, most importantly, an artificial surge for polyolefins that occurred in 1994.
That temporary surge gave producers throughout the world a false picture of their domestic demand and false levels of high profitability, ``which, of course, means that more olefins and polyolefins capacity will be built,'' Bari said.
He believes new monomer and polymer production capacities spell trouble for the new metallocene resins.
Bari acknowledged that metallocene resins have improved performance characteristics, but he noted that those characteristics come at a cost: They are harder to process and are simply more expensive.
``The overall development of the metallocene and nonmetallocene second-generation polyethylene products will mean a renewed, intense level of interpolymer competition,'' Bari said.
Meanwhile, Sinclair analyzed the markets by a different avenue.
Sinclair said he believes the demand for polyolefins based on metallocene catalyst technology will be driven by factors similar to those that created growth for linear LDPE. LLDPE, Sinclair pointed out, was introduced in 1976, and captured 28 percent of the market for polyolefins within 10 years.
``We have not yet begun to see the full depth and potential of metallocene technology for polyolefins,'' Sinclair said.
``In many instances, it appears that even the developers of these technologies cannot measure, or as yet do not fully understand, the mechanisms by which metallocene polymers achieve their exceptional characteristics, '' he added.
Sinclair cited applications of metallocene resins in heat-sealing layers, as blends and modifiers of other polymers, and as replacement polymers for film in packaging products that require enhanced tear strength, elasticity and optical clarity.
In heat-sealing applications, he said, metallocene resins have the potential to increase production line speeds by a factor of three. This is not contrary to the difficulty of processing that Bari mentioned earlier. Bari was comparing metallocene PE to LLDPE. Sinclair is comparing metallocene PE to heat-sealing resins such as ethyl vinyl alcohol that have a higher heat-seal initiation temperature and poorer hot-tack strength.
``By the year 2000 it appears that a global production of 10 million metric tons [22 billion pounds] of metallocene-based polymers could be reached,'' Sinclair said.
``Of that total consumption, 75 percent would represent replacement of existing products with higher-performance, metallocene-based `cannibals,' and 25 percent would represent the additive expansion of the market for polyolefins, because they will become more competitive with natural products, and because many completely new applications will be developed,'' he said.