The battle for supremacy in the metallocene world is heating up again.
Dow Chemical Co. has filed a pair of lawsuits against Exxon Corp. and its Univation Technologies LLC subsidiary claiming the firms have violated Dow patents in producing metallocene-enhanced polyethylene. The suits were filed last week in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del.
Officials at Dow, Exxon and Univation declined to comment on the suits, but an industry official who asked not to be identified said the actions revolve around long-chain branching technology used in polyethylene molecules under Dow's Insite-brand technology. Long-chain branching has improved processability problems encountered in some early metallocene materials.
``Dow believes that there's been infringement of their long-chain branching process and they're ready to defend it,'' the official said in a July 31 telephone interview.
The first suit alleges Exxon has violated Dow patents by producing linear low density PE in Geleen, the Netherlands, since 1996 and importing it back into the United States, according to both Bloomberg News and Reuters.
In the second suit, Dow is looking to stop Univation and Exxon from making metallocene catalysts and PE at Exxon's Mont Belvieu, Texas, plant, according to Reuters. A 440 million-pound PE expansion is expected to begin operation at the site later this year.
Dow also is seeking triple damages from both Exxon and Univation for allegedly violating the patents.
Midland, Mich.-based Dow and Houston-based Exxon have been the two largest players in the metallocene field. Dow's Insite technology and Univation's Exxpol technology — which combines Exxon's metallocene know-how with that of Union Carbide Corp. of Danbury, Conn. — are duking it out in the metallocene market to produce enhanced polyethylenes and other products that potentially could replace more-expensive engineered plastics.
To date, metallocenes have had the most commercial impact in LLDPE films, where they can enhance puncture strength and tear resistance.
Global metallocene sales totaled about 500 million pounds last year, with Dow and Exxon each accounting for 100 million to 200 million pounds of that total, according to Surinder Bahl, project manager for Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. in Houston.
Bahl expects that sales number to double in 1998, 1999 and 2000 as easier-processing grades make the materials more attractive to customers.
``Processability is the key,'' Bahl said. ``That's what's going to push the market.''
Balaji Singh, president of Houston's Chemical Market Resources Inc., said Dow's improved processability has allowed it to catch up to Exxon in the metallocene market even though Exxon's products were commercialized almost a year earlier.
``Dow's material was closer to the extrusion equipment that was already being used without any modifications,'' Singh said.