Nova Chemicals claims a new breed of single-site catalysts unveiled last week will allow the company to compete with leaders in the growing field, such as Dow Chemical Co. and Univation Technologies.
``I feel we have a breakthrough here that's different from our competition,'' Nova's Paul Clark said in a Sept. 23 teleconference. ``And we can be very speedy in taking new ideas and translating them into commercial value.''
Clark is vice president of technology for Nova, a Calgary, Alberta, firm, which ranks as North America's sixth-largest polyethylene maker.
The new catalysts are not classified as metallocenes but offer many of the same traits. The company claims they can be used as drop-in technology in Nova's Sclairtech PE production process with minimal capital costs.
Officials said the new catalysts will be used at Nova's Joffre, Alberta, plant, which will open in late 2000 with the ability to produce 850 million pounds of PE annually.
``The new catalysts ensure the viability of the [Joffre] plant as far out as the eye can see,'' Clark said. ``And the exciting thing is we've been able to develop them for one-tenth of the typical cost of our major competitors.''
The ability of Nova scientists to easily create scale models of catalysts played a large role in this cost savings. Clark worked at Dow for 25 years before joining Nova in 1994 and said he based his comparison on his knowledge of Dow's development costs.
``We were able to cut down on bench development and multiple reruns because we were able to scale the models quite easily,'' Clark said.
The catalysts have been used to produce PE in pilot runs at Nova's PE facility in Sarnia, Ontario. Some of Sarnia's 600 million-pound annual capacity could be using the new catalysts as early as next year, Clark said.
To date, metallocene/single-site PE has enjoyed its greatest commercial success in film applications, where the new materials have offered improved strength and puncture resistance.
Nova officials said materials produced with its new catalysts surpass previous metallocene/single-site materials in processability, gloss and clarity. The new materials also produced improvements in dart impact and tear properties, a combination that Clark said was difficult to achieve with previous metallocene materials.
Clark added Nova was encouraged by a recent federal court decision that ruled against Exxon's claim that Dow and DuPont Dow Elastomers had violated its metallocene patents.
``That decision says that there are other distinct families beyond the Exxon catalysts,'' Clark said. ``It made it that much easier for us to introduce our new catalysts.''
Nova could capitalize on the new technology through its low-cost ethylene feedstock position in Canada, said Howard Blum, a market analyst with the Catalyst Group in Spring House, Pa.
But Blum added he was unsure if Nova's new catalysts would put the company in the same league as Dow and Univation, the metallocene technology partnership between Exxon Corp. and Union Carbide Corp.
``I don't see Nova having the same critical mass or global reach as Univation or Dow, so it's hard to equate,'' Blum said.
Nova's Sclairtech process currently has 13 global licensees, a smaller licensing base than Univation. Dow does not license its solution process for PE production.
``[Single-site technology] is a good feather in Nova's cap though,'' Blum added. ``Dow and Univation may even welcome it — it could add impetus to their customers to believe in metallocenes.''