MOUNT OLIVE, N.J. — Construction is steaming ahead at BASF Corp.'s planned styrenic copolymers plant in Altamira, Mexico, while the firm expects its recently expanded Freeport, Texas, nylon 6 resin plant to help meet strong demand for that material.
BASF officials reviewed those and several other topics in a Nov. 18 interview at the company's Mount Olive headquarters.
The Altamira plant, at the same site as BASF's recently opened polystyrene works, will open in late 1998, with more than half of its 280 million pounds of capacity devoted to ABS, and the rest producing acrylic styrene acrylonitrile and styrene acrylonitrile, said Susan Ostrowski, styrenic copolymer business team leader.
``Our technology gives us more-consistent production,'' Ostrowski said. ``It's an emulsion process instead of mass or suspension. It produces a cleaner, whiter, brighter product.''
BASF is optimistic about the future of ABS in spite of a recent soft market that has driven prices down an average of 4 cents since early summer, and steadily declining production and sales.
Through September, North American ABS sales were down more than 5 percent from 1996, while production was down almost 8 percent, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington. The North American market is dominated by GE Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass., and Bayer Corp. of Pittsburgh.
``We're not that concerned overall,'' Ostrowski said of recent action in the ABS market. ``A market that big didn't grow unless there were good uses for ABS.''
Although ABS has lost some market share to polypropylene in automotive interior uses, it still offers a cosmetic material advantage because of its good impact and heat-distortion characteristics, Ostrowski added.
Pending legislation about free styrene emissions could give ABS an opportunity to replace polystyrene in applications such as refrigerator liners, officials said.
By comparison, ASA is soaring. Led by exterior automotive uses, the material is growing 15 percent annually for BASF.
``We've had a lot of success with ASA in North America,'' Ostrowski said. ``Basically anything on the outside of a car is fair game.''
ASA's weatherability makes it ideal for side-view mirrors, headlamp housings, grilles and other exterior applications, she said.
At BASF's year-end press briefing Dec. 1 in New York, Ostrowski said ASA could compete with PVC in the home exteriors market, particularly where nonwhite material is concerned.
``You can't beat PVC with white, but people want different colors in their lives,'' Ostrowski said. ``ASA is more expensive, but it lasts longer and offers better color.''
SAN is seeing more modest growth of 1-2 percent annually for BASF, mostly in household and consumer applications.
As for the company's move into Mexico, Ostrowski said: ``People think Mexico is Tijuana, that the people there aren't capable. But Mexico has been refining petroleum for 30 years. All the stereotypes don't apply.''
Out nylon way, BASF is using a 70 million-pound capacity expansion that became available in October in Freeport, Texas, to meet the 7 percent growth rate the company is expecting in that area next year after enjoying 10 percent growth in 1997. That growth is tied into the 8-9 percent growth rate engineering resins as a whole have enjoyed in the past five years, said Raj Mehta, engineering resins business director.
``If you look at it historically, processors are much more comfortable today about engineering plastics. They're not afraid to design something right on target,'' he said.
North American statistics back up Mehta's claim. Nylon sales are up 11.1 percent over last year, while production has jumped 8 percent, according to SPI.
In the short term, nylon is seeing upward pricing pressure from shortages in adepic acid and caprolactam, two key nylon ingredients. Nylon producers successfully raised prices an average of 5 cents during the summer months, but Mehta said he expects nylon prices to be flat in 1998.
The Freeport expansion moves BASF into the No. 3 spot in North American nylon production, trailing only DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., and AlliedSignal Inc. of Morristown, N.J.
About one-third of BASF's nylon goes into the automotive market, with 20-25 percent in the electrical/electronics field and 10-15 percent in packaging, said Mehta, adding that automotive and packaging have seen the most significant growth.
Mehta also said nylon is taking some automotive applications away from polypropylene as temperature demands increase.
Elsewhere, BASF is adding 24 million pounds of acetal capacity by early 1998 at the plant it operates with Degussa Corp. in Theodore, Ala. Another 24 million pounds will be added in 2000.
Acetal is expected to grow 4-5 percent next year — after seeing growth of 5-6 percent in 1997 — as its chemical resistance continues to find opportunities in the plumbing and sanitation industries, Mehta said.