DETROIT — Rigid polyurethane, a material on the decline in auto applications, could gain redemption if a new recycling center can prove its case to automakers.
The center, which officially opened last week near downtown Detroit, is a joint venture of PU producer BASF Corp. and industrial recycler Philip Services Corp. The companies bill the one-room, 5,000-square-foot facility as the first center in North America that will recycle rigid and semi-rigid PU.
The plant will use a BASF-patented glycolysis process that breaks down PU, which can be ground from industrial waste or scrapped automotive parts into polyol, one of its chemical building blocks. The liquid polyol then will be reused by BASF, which will buy the product from Philip Services, to create new thermoset PU formulations.
BASF is banking that rigid PU will capture the interest of Big Three automakers if it can be presented as a low-cost, recyclable option.
``Until now, most rigid polyurethane parts had to be scrapped,'' said Richard Dauksys, director of polymers resource management for Mount Olive, N.J.-based BASF. ``We're hoping to give the auto industry a product that can be endlessly recycled and keep parts from going to the landfill.''
The facility, capable of producing 10 million pounds a year of polyol, would not have been possible without carmakers' backing, Dauksys said. Before forming the facility, BASF required General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., as well as several Tier 1 suppliers, to sign a memorandum of understanding.
The agreement stated that the firms will supply post-industrial scrap, which Philip Services will collect and, when possible, provide post-consumer parts culled from vehicles to the recycling center. In addition, automakers agreed to look into products that could use the recycled PU.
Currently, the industry uses a majority of rigid PU in bumper fascias, primarily by using reaction injection molding. Other, lower-volume applications for molded PU include spoilers, wheel covers and steering wheels.
However, partly due to recycling issues, use of PU is declining in bumper applications, said Andrew Acho, director of environmental outreach and strategy with Ford in Dearborn, Mich. Thermoplastic olefins, which have a wider recycling infrastructure in place, have replaced PU at many processing plants.
Ford, for instance, spent $33 million earlier this year to convert to polypropylene-based TPO bumper fascias from PU-based parts at its Utica, Mich., plant.
``We've never been able to recycle polyurethane, and that's a reason why we don't use as much of that as we once did,'' Acho said. ``But if this [recycling] facility is successful, that outlook might change.''
Acho's sentiments are supported by a bumper fascia study from Houston-based polymer research group Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. The group's figures show that the use of PU in North American bumper applications fell from an estimated 125 million pounds in 1994 to 100 million pounds last year, while TPO usage rose by more than 20 percent in that same period.
The use of PU is expected to continue its free fall, said Phillip Townsend's Lansing, Mich.-based automotive analyst Phil Sarnacke. Driving the change has been both the cost of PU compared with TPO and the recycling problem.
``The perception is that you can recycle TPO much more easily than PU,'' Sarnacke said. ``This facility could be a positive step to change some of that. But it has to first prove it can be successful and cut the cost of PU.''
Some roadblocks remain, however. Before automakers can use the material, enough post-consumer PU must be found to support a high-volume vehicle model, Acho said. In addition, the cost of the recycled PU, which will be sold by BASF, must be equal to or lower than competing materials.
Yet, the industry believes the use of recycled PU could be a selling point as the industry attempts to reach recycling goals, said Susan Yester of Chrysler's Executive Vehicle Recycling Programs in Auburn Hills, Mich.
``We want to create environmentally friendly cars,'' Yester said. ``A lot of that can come from more recycling work in the plastics and rubber industries.''
BASF and Philip Services plan to start producing polyol immediately from post-industrial waste. By the middle of next year, the companies hope to begin folding post-consumer parts into the plant's feedstock stream.
The facility opened on the Detroit office site of Philip Services. The resource recovery company, based in Hamilton, Ontario, will run the plant, which will start with four employees but can expand to as many as 15. BASF will provide technology, equipment and on-site support. The companies did not disclose their investment in the plant.
The plant includes a 150-horsepower granulator that grinds materials into small particles before depositing them via conveyor to an agitated gas reactor. Once there, the material cooks with chemicals and catalysts to separate out the polyol in an eight-hour process.
The material then is piped to a buffer tank for cooling before distribution to BASF.
The facility, which was built in nine months, could be a steppingstone to build other, similar plants in North America, Dauksys said. Other industries, including recreation and construction, also might consider using the recycled thermoset, he added.