HOUSTON — Although the metallocene polymer market is still working to establish itself commercially, a new group of catalysts has appeared on the horizon promising improved performance in an even wider range of plastics.
And resin makers who stop to catch their breath during this research race will find themselves wandering somewhere south of nowhere formulating answers for angry stockholders.
That was the view from Metcon 98, a global metallocene conference organized by Catalyst Group in Houston June 10-11.
``The technology has created a gap between contenders and wanna-bes and players,'' said Howard Blum, vice president of Spring House, Pa.-based Catalyst Group. ``And it's not just a question of being a resin producer but a question of being a catalyst and co-catalyst and support producer.''
Blum listed Dow Chemical Co. and Exxon Corp. as the only two resin makers who have proven their metallocene products are worthy at the commercial level. Dow has done so with its Insite technology, while Exxon has successfully marketed its Exxpol process.
Mobil Co., BASF AG and Union Carbide Corp. each have metallocene technology that has generated more technological than commercial interest to date, while developing metallocene work from DSM NV, Phillips Petroleum Co. and Borealis AG are expected eventually to have commercial importance, Blum said.
Metallocene polypropylene is so far limited to efforts from Fina Inc., Exxon and Targor, a BASF/Hoechst AG joint venture.
The new group of products consists of single-site organometallic catalysts, which are part of a broader spectrum of technology that Blum said will eventually envelop metallocenes.
``Metallocene and single-site materials have hastened industry restructuring,'' Blum said. ``And single-site organometallic catalysts will change the focus of metallocenes.''
Companies with single-site organometallics commercialized or in development include DuPont Co. (Versipol), Shell Chemical Co. (Carilon, Corterra), BP Chemicals/GE Plastics (Ketonex), B.F. Goodrich Co. (Avatrel, Appear) and Exxon, whose work in this area has included exploring nickel, palladium and other metals for use in catalysts.
``It goes to show how the whole area of single-site catalysts has just exploded,'' said Doug Selman, Exxon's vice president of polymers technology. ``People have taken the knowledge they learned from metallocenes and applied it to nonmetallocene single-site catalysts.''
There may be a practical reason behind this scientific curiousity. Selman said the metallocene patent field is ``pretty much locked up,'' which probably played a role in the nonmetallocene drive.
The lessons learned by the first metallocene makers also are likely to benefit single-site commercialization. Selman said it took Exxon nine years to produce commercial resin based on its metallocene catalysts, but new single-site materials may be able to reach that stage in five years.
And even at Phillips, a firm that recently refocused and increased its efforts to market its metallocene technology, polymers and materials division manager Don Brady sees the rise in nonmetallocene work as a good thing.
``I think it will be for the overall benefit of the industry,'' Brady said of the new technology. ``It will broaden the opportunities for new catalysts and create opportunities for new materials.''
With this much going on back in the lab, it's a good thing industry officials, as well as consultants such as Kenneth Sinclair, foresee a bright future for metallocenes.
``Resin producers have gotten rid of their wooden clubs and are now using laser-guided weapons to beat up the competition,'' said Sinclair, principal of STA Research of Sunnyvale, Calif.
``Hard-won positions are now seriously threatened,'' Sinclair added. ``It's not just a matter of consolidation and cost reduction — you might not have anything to sell in the future as market share goes to single-site catalysts.''
Sinclair expects annual metallocene/single-site PE production to soar from 1 billion pounds in 1998 to 3.2 billion in 2000 and skyrocket to more than 120 billion by 2015. This consumption will be split between new polyethylene applications, new low density PE substitutes and what Sinclair calls ``polyethylene cannibals'' — one-to-one replacements of existing commodity PE applications.
Sinclair also foresees the metallocene/single-site market shifting from an 83 percent commodity base in 1996 to a 73 percent commodity base in 2001 as specialties and enhanced ``commodity-plus'' materials consume a larger part of the pie.
The payoff could be huge, allowing metallocene/single-site makers to recover the substantial investments they've made in the technology. Added value of $330 million in 2000 could be as high as $8.3 billion in 2015, Sinclair said.
``Recovering that money is as safe as money in the bank,'' he said.