HOUSTON — After seeing displays from a trio of pilot-plant builders and suppliers at a recent industry conference, a resin executive wryly said, ``It's good to see someone's making money from metallocenes.''
While resin makers have struggled to regain the investments they've made in producing metallocene polyethylene and polypropylene, companies like Zeton Inc., Xytel Corp. and PDC Machines Inc. have reaped the benefits from the pilot plants resin makers operate to test materials before moving into full commercial scale.
Zeton, a Burlington, Ontario, firm that split from Xytel in 1984, has built five to 10 pilot plants in the past two years for such major producers as Dow Chemical Co., Exxon Chemical Co., Nova Chemicals LLC and Fina Oil and Chemical Co., according to Peter Smith, Zeton's vice president of marketing and sales.
The 90-employee firm's most recent project was a pilot plant it built for Dow's Index ethylene styrene interpolymers in Freeport, Texas.
``Half of our business is now in polyolefins,'' Smith said. ``Major developments in the manufacturing of polymers and polyolefins have grown out of science, which means producers need to build pilot plants in order to scale up and test the new materials. More people need these kinds of toys.''
Zeton produces pilot plants with capacities from laboratory quantities of as much as 220 pounds per hour. Its plants can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $10 million.
Xytel, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., has built five PE/PP pilot plants since 1994, according to process engineering manager John Lawlor.
More than half of the 25-year-old firm's $15 million in annual sales total comes from polyolefin-related projects, which have filled a void created when decreased oil and gas profits caused those industries to cut back on pilot-plant construction, Lawlor said.
Xytel, which employs 35, has built pilot plants that produce as much as 400 pounds of material per hour.
Zeton's Smith and Xytel's Lawlor each said pilot plants made to test metallocene materials are similar to those for standard polyolefins, even though the performance of the end materials are different.
At PDC, a pilot-plant equipment supplier based in Warminster, Pa., the 16-year-old firm has thrived by producing custom-made equipment for plants and labs.
PDC has increased its staff to 30, from 15, in the past two or three years, as large corporations have cut research personnel.
``Many of the companies we work with used to have their own research teams on board,'' said Osama Al-Qasem, PDC's marketing and sales director. ``But with downsizing and mergers, they can't handle all of the work and they're under pressure to find a lower-cost producer. So they come to a company like us who can provide a diverse amount of services.''
PDC's products include reactors, compressors and syringe pumps, which inject metallocene catalysts into resins.
PDC, which posted sales of $5 million last year, has produced pilot-plant equipment for Exxon, DuPont and Mobil Chemical Co.