Nova Chemicals Corp. of Pittsburgh and BP Amoco plc of London are joining forces to develop and market chemical catalysts for producing improved grades of polyethylene.
Specifically, Nova's Novacat-T advanced Ziegler-Natta catalysts will be used in BP's Innovene PE process. BP has sold 24 Innovene licenses worldwide at PE plants with a combined annual capacity of almost 9 billion pounds.
The Novacat-T catalysts already have been tested at a Nova pilot plant in Sarnia, Ontario, and now will be tested at a BP Innovene plant. Officials have not decided which plant will be used to test the catalysts, but possibilities include BP's PE plant in Grangemouth, Scotland, and a BP/Bayer AG PE plant in Dormagen, Germany, officials said. BP already has tested pilot runs using the catalysts at a plant in Lavera, France.
If the BP tests are successful, the catalysts could be offered to Innovene licensees by the end of the year. Novacat-T catalysts also will be used in production at Nova's Joffre, Alberta, PE plant later this year, said Nova spokesman Del Fischer. The Joffre site currently produces about 1.2 billion pounds of PE, with another 850 million pounds of capacity set to come onstream this spring.
The new catalysts can create PE with specifically tailored molecular weights, according to Dave Purvis, Nova's licensing general manager. Broad-molecular-weight PE can create stronger geomembrane caps and liners. Narrow-molecular-weight PE can have improved dart, haze and clarity features for food packaging.
The catalysts also can increase resin capacity by as much as 20 percent through improved reactor output, resulting in "one-step debottlenecking," Purvis said.
PE made with the new catalysts will be priced at a premium over Nova's standard PE, but officials declined to estimate the amount of that premium.
Fischer said the closeness of the Feb. 19 Nova/BP announcement to the recent closing of the Dow Chemical Co./Union Carbide merger was "purely coincidental," even though PE technology played a big role in both events.
As part of the Dow/Carbide merger, Dow agreed to divest to BP its share of PE technology the two firms had developed together. Regulatory officials insisted on that action since Dow was acquiring Carbide's widely used Unipol PE technology, as well as its share in Univation, a metallocene licensing venture between Carbide and Exxon.
"Nova had been negotiating with BP [on PE technology] since early 2000," Fischer said, adding that the two firms have a long-term supply partnership.
BP currently is building an olefins plant in Joffre to supply the Nova facility there.
And although Unipol licenses far outnumber Innovene licenses on a global basis, BP has been more aggressive than Carbide in the past several years, resulting in more Innovene licenses being sold in that period, according to Nova.
"We're not producing new resins, but we are improving the processing of resins we're already making," Fischer said. "We see this as the start of a family of catalysts that we can eventually use with our own Advanced Sclairtech technology."
The Nova/BP deal could allow Nova to become "a legitimate, strong player" in PE technology if it reaches a critical mass of production capacity, according to Howard Blum, an industry consultant with Catalyst Group in Spring House, Pa.
"This is Nova's first big catalyst announcement outside of their own technologies," Blum said. "This strategy will give Nova access to a much greater number of licensees than they have for their own Advanced Sclairtech process. And BP gets another option for Innovene and possibly access to single-site technology as well."
The agreement is also "part of Nova's belief that we need to invest in differential technology," Fischer added.
"This collaboration shows a way that we can work with a larger company to our mutual benefit without consolidating," he said.