Shell Chemical Co. plans to raise the bar for its new Carilon line of polymers by taking on potentially formidable automotive markets for plastic: fuel tanks and air-intake manifolds.
The company is working with several unspecified European carmakers to develop the material for fuel tanks, said Paul Sykes, automotive market manager of Shell's Houston-based Carilon Polymers unit. Shell also is working in Europe to develop Carilon-based air-intake manifolds—now primarily made from nylon 6 and 6/6, he said.
Using Carilon, an aliphatic polyketone polymer, would allow fuel tanks to be injection molded, Sykes said. Currently, most U.S. fuel tanks are coextruded in six layers and blow molded on large, high-priced machines.
Shell hopes to have injection molded fuel tanks on European vehicles in two to five years, Sykes said. By doing so, Shell plans to spark interest in North America, where Carilon-based fuel tanks could be on vehicles soon after that, he predicted.
The market for both products is large and growing. Virtually every new model now coming out in the United States and Europe contains a fuel tank blow molded from high density polyethylene. And soon after the year 2000, most industry experts say about 80 percent of air-intake manifolds made here and in Europe will use nylon instead of steel.
The switch to injection molding could open the floodgates to let in new fuel tank suppliers, said one industry source who did not want to be identified. However, Carilon's price, about five times that of HDPE, is a large potential stumbling block.
Currently, a small club of four custom suppliers, plus Ford Motor Co.'s Visteon parts-making unit, make most HDPE fuel tanks in North America.
Those suppliers might not be so amenable to abandoning their large capital investments for a material they are less comfortable with, said Phil Sarnacke, a Midland, Mich.-based automotive consultant with Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. in Houston.
``I hate to knock Carilon, but there's really nothing wrong with HDPE fuel tanks,'' he said. ``I certainly can't see [suppliers] throwing out their coextrusion equipment. And unless a supplier is up against the wall, he won't pay a lot more for different material.''
Shell, a small player in auto powertrain parts, also could meet stiff resistance from HDPE and nylon suppliers. HDPE product manager Michael Klamm of BASF Corp.'s automotive office in Wyandotte, Mich., said his company is watching Carilon's development.
``But the established system works,'' Klemm said. ``A lot of investments have been made by molders and machinery companies in long-term data on HDPE. Impact resistance is excellent, and there's a huge cost advantage in using HDPE for fuel tanks.''
Shell officials counter that their material has superior impact strength, will drop in price, and offers better permeation resistance than HDPE and nylon. That last point could be the key to the material's growth in Europe, where fuel emissions standards are more stringent than in North America.
``A gas tank would have no worries about emissions with Carilon,'' Sykes said. ``Safety is becoming a more important issue in Europe and other places in the world.''
The company is offering several fuel-tank permutations with Carilon. The engineered thermoplastic polymer can be used in coextruded tanks as the middle barrier—replacing ethylene vinyl alcohol—to prevent fuel permeation. Or it could be used as the innermost layer for a construction that includes a layer of adhesive, HDPE and Carilon regrind, and a skin made of HDPE.
Or injection molded tanks could be made entirely from Carilon, with two halves welded in a clamshell design, Sykes said.
Shell's polymer was launched in October 1996 when the company opened its first Carilon plant in Carrington, England. Since then, the material has wended its way into small auto parts, including an engine's onboard refueling vapor recovery valves.
Europe seemed the likeliest place for additional material switching to begin, Sykes said.
``In the U.S., the skepticism is understandable,'' Sykes said. ``Suppliers have accomplished what they set out to do with polyethylene and nylon. In Europe, they are more willing to look at change. It's now up to us to prove Carilon's economic viability.''
That could prove a challenge, especially compared with HDPE. The material costs about 40 cents a pound, compared with about $2.64 a pound, on the high end, for Carilon, Sykes said.
However, Carilon's total parts costs plummet when reduced assembly time and materials are taken into account, said Carilon senior research engineer Robert Farris.
The material holds up better than other semicrystalline polymers under high temperature, meaning that no parts shrinkage occurs during processing and the high moisture content keeps parts from becoming brittle, Farris said. The parts' dimensional stability also means fewer distorted, unusable parts, he added.
Plus, with the added strength, less material is needed than with typical vehicle applications, Farris said.
With nylon, the cost difference is not as wide, Sykes added. Most nylon grades run upward of $1.33 per pound. With new Carilon production coming, Shell hopes to drop its price as low as $1.50 per pound for some applications, Sykes said.
But against nylon, some question Carilon's ability to be welded and to flow through integrated fuel systems. Meeting those concerns and Shell's price positioning will be key success factors, said Robert Eller, president of Akron, Ohio-based plastics consulting company Robert Eller Associates Inc.
``One has to look at whether other claimed Carilon advantages can justify a price premium vs. the lower-priced nylon incumbents,'' he said.
Shell is moving ahead on its second Carilon plant, an 87,500-square-foot facility in Geismar, La., slated to begin producing 55 million pounds annually by early 1999. The plant eventually could be expanded to make 110 million pounds a year.
Couple that with the 45 million pounds coming annually from the British plant, and Shell believes it has the capacity to keep prices down. That would be good news for LNP Engineering Plastics Inc., a compounder that has a supply agreement with Carilon.
``Long term, I think the new plant should be a plus for lower prices,'' said product marketing manager Jamie Tebay of LNP, based in Exton, Pa. ``It's a new resin that's unproven a little bit, and it will take the automotive engineering community some time to grasp something new. But we're moving full force on it.''
In Europe, both Shell and LNP are working with carmakers and parts suppliers on new applications. Shell is testing Carilon for fuel tanks and welded manifolds, putting the parts through a series of drop and impact tests.
Those tests have included extensive barrier studies to prove that the material contains fuel and hydrocarbons inside a tank. Feasibility studies also have been conducted using Carilon on fuel rails, throttle bodies and fuel and vapor line connectors.
LNP also is working with automakers, separately and with Shell, from its plant in Raamsdonksveer, the Netherlands. The compounder has developed more than 25 grades of Carilon, Tebay said.
The grades include a conductive Carilon material to stop static buildup and eliminate the chance of fuel-tank sparks or, in the worst case, explosions, Tebay said. In addition, LNP has developed a flame-retardant grade that prevents hydrocarbon emissions.
Shell also has a licensing agreement with compounder RTP Co. of Winona, Minn., to develop conductive and precolored versions of Carilon, said market analyst Paul Vanyo.
But even with the support of compounders, Sykes said he knows the firm is up against some strong forces in North America.
``We think we can prove out, through a number of tests, how feasible it will be to use Carilon,'' Sykes said.