HOUSTON - DSM Elastomers BV is considering construction of an ethylene propylene elastomer plant in Addis, La., based on its new Lovacat catalyst technology. The announcement was one of several salvos fired recently as polymer suppliers jockey for position in the fast-changing elastomers market.
DSM's head of polymer chemistry, George Evans, said the Lovacat process allows a broad product range, including high-molecular-weight ethylene propylene copolymers and diene terpolymers. The new facility would make EP and EP diene monomer-modified polymers for plastics modification, wire and cable, and oil additives, he told attendees at Flexpo '96. EP and EPDM are important components of many thermoplastic elastomers and thermoplastic polyolefins.
Evans elaborated on an announcement DSM first made June 18 from its headquarters in Geleen, the Netherlands. The firm expects a decision on the Addis plant early next year after it completes a feasibility study.
In a talk at Flexpo '96, held June 26-28 in Houston, Evans said Lovacat is a lower-cost method than DSM's existing solution process. Polymerization occurs at high temperature, eliminating the need for expensive reactor heat removal and extraction equipment. Lovacat relies on catalysts based on titanium or other transition metals that give high yield. The catalysts are related to metallocenes.
Evans said Lovacat and the Addis facility will be separate from DSM's joint venture with Exxon Chemical Co. The venture, called Dex-Plastomers V.O.F., recently began elastomers production in Geleen using Exxon metallocene technology in a DSM polyolefins facility.
DSM has made pilot-plant quantities of Lovacat EP copolymers with propylene levels as high as 57 percent. Lovacat, short for low valency catalyst, will help DSM in an increasingly competitive market.
Officials did not disclose how big the Addis plant would be, but the firm already has about 440 million pounds of EP and EPDM polymer capacity in the Netherlands, United States, Bra-zil, and in a joint venture with Idemitsu Petrochemical Co., in Japan.
Several companies are using new technology to leverage a bigger share of the elastomers market. Metallocene polymer suppliers such as Exxon Chemical Co. and Dow Chemical Co. have debuted plastomer resins capturing applications in packaging, medical, automotive and other markets. They have begun licensing their technology, and licenses will proliferate in the future because ``research and development in this area takes a lot of money,'' said Fred Steininger, director of sales development for Exxon's Exxpol technology.
Dow and DuPont Co. have a joint venture combining Dow's metallocene-based plastomers and DuPont's elastomer products. Montell announced at Flex-po '96 that it extended its Catal-loy polypropylene reactor technology to make an EPDM-based thermoplastic elastomer pellet.
Union Carbide Corp. is ready to debut gas-phase production of EPDM, said Patrick Gallo, business director of the Danbury, Conn., firm. It claims its process saves costs, is environmentally friendly and produces granular material that is easier to handle and mix than bales made in conventional processes.
Carbide's current grades of ElastoFlo granules are coated with carbon black during production to prevent agglomeration, but the firm will introduce grades without carbon black. Gallo said Carbide plans to start making gas-phase EPDM at Seadrift, Texas, this fall in a 200 million-pound reactor.
Uniroyal Chemical Co. Inc. of Naugatuck, Conn., is looking at metallocene catalyzation to produce EP polymers with new structures for new uses, said Emanuel Kontos, associate director of elastomers technology. Uniroyal has been using its vanadium-based technology for several years to make Royalene. Kontos stressed Uniroyal would adopt metallocene technology only if production economics warrant it.
``Right now we don't see any advantages to us or our customers,'' he said.
Kontos said metallocene pro-cesses appear to give less branching and fewer cross-linking sites than most EP catalysts, which could necessitate use of branching agents in metallocene polymerizations.
Evans said metallocenes might affect how elastomers are produced, ``but they won't shake up the industry'' in terms of elastomer applications. He stressed that compounding technology is key to elastomer markets.
``When you develop a molecular structure, only half the work is done,'' he said.
A DSM Thermoplastic Elasto-mers Inc. official said he does not expect new polyolefins to en-croach on vulcanized elastomers such as DSM's Sarlink and Mon-santo Co.'s Santoprene.
``They are two distinct markets,'' said Marc Lebel, president of Leominster, Mass.-based DSM Thermoplastic.
Vulcanized elastomers have exceptional compression set and elastomeric properties with hardness as low as 30 Shore A. Thermoplastic polyolefins, however, have hardness starting at 40 Shore D, Lebel said.
Lebel said expiration of the Monsanto patents at the turn of the century probably will not lead to a proliferation of new vulcanizate suppliers.
Companies would need to invest a lot in research and development to serve a fragmented market where an average application consumes only a half million pounds a year. He predicts vulcanizate prices will not drop dramatically because prices ``need to be high enough to support development'' of complex applications such as a sequentially blow molded automotive air intake duct.
Another speaker said metallocene-based plastomers will encroach on EP elastomer markets, but EP and EPDM advances will keep up with market needs.
``Metallocene and gas-phase technologies will expand uses and the market for EPDM,'' predicted Joe Beckman, director of industrial business research and development at DSM Copolymers Inc. of Baton Rouge, La.
TPE markets are growing 5 percent a year, estimated Chris Pappas, global vice president of sales and marketing for DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC of Wilming-ton, Del. Growth will be driven by molecular design, consistency, cleanliness, cost-effectiveness and availability of material as pellets.
New materials will capture markets now held by vinyl, EVA and other polymers, he said.
``Competition will be severe,'' Pappas predicted, adding that a technology-driven shakeup among leading producers during the next five years will put Exxon, DuPont Dow, DSM, Union Carbide and Bayer AG among the top EP elastomer suppliers.
All TPE markets will be affected by new-generation polyolefins, concluded Balaji Singh, president of Chemical Market Resources Inc. of Houston, which sponsored Flexpo '96.
Singh estimated North Ameri-ca's market for TPOs at 271 million pounds in 1995.
Flexpo '96 was Chemical Mar-ket Resources' first conference on intermaterial substitution.