Daunting challenges and significant opportunities confront makers of enhanced polyethylene targeting the U.S. water market for pressure pipe.
Dow Chemical Co., Atofina Petrochemicals Inc., Equistar Chemicals LP and others have invested in technology and domestic capability to make bimodal high density PE resin, but obstacles - different product standards and end-user resistance to change - may delay commercial success.
Europeans have used the upgraded materials since the early 1990s, but it will take more time to convert the North American water utility market to costlier bimodal resins - typically ISO-rated PE100 - from today's common monomodal technology.
``These better PE materials will get into the U.S. water market, but it is not clear how the transition will happen,'' said Thomas Walsh, president of Houston-based consulting company Walsh Consulting Services Co. ``The question is, how long will it take? People in the PE industry and pipe experts are working on the issues, and, in my opinion, this market change is going to happen sooner rather than later.''
One roadblock is the conservative, risk-averse attitudes of water-department engineers, some of whom are unreceptive to the idea of a new plastic pipe product and to changes in their engineering design philosophy.
Meanwhile, manufacturers of gasket-joint PVC and ductile iron pipe, represented by the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association of Dallas and the Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association of Birmingham, Ala., will monitor any market intrusion from PE.
Ductile iron accounted for 49.7 percent, PVC for 46.7 percent and PE for 3.6 percent of 2002 domestic water-pressure pipe production, according to Walsh Consulting. By weight, that production included 2.5 billion pounds of ductile iron, 2.35 billion pounds of PVC and a mere 185 million pounds of PE.
The trend is quite different in Europe, where the numbers were 417 million pounds for ductile iron, 345 million pounds for PVC and 614 million pounds for PE, according to Ewan Green, construction projects manager with the consulting unit of Applied Market Information Ltd. in Bristol, England.
The three domestic makers of advanced HDPE participate in Plastics Pipe Institute Inc. efforts to close the standards chasm, but the firms often can disagree on how to resolve issues:
* Dow Chemical has launched a multifaceted initiative to change domestic water pipe standards for acceptance of newer PE resins from its upgraded plant in Taft, La.
* In May, Atofina Petrochemicals announced the commercial availability of PE Finathene XT10N from an improved and expanded facility in Bayport, Texas.
* Equistar's line grew with the April release of L50PE100 for the water market and the June 2002 debut of L5008, both from its Matagorda, Texas, plant.
Another domestic producer, ChevronPhillips Chemical Co. LP, developed and commercialized PE Marlex H516 in Houston about five years ago, but subsequently withdrew the product from the market.
Other firms, including joint venture BP Solvay, Borealis A/S and Basell NV, make improved versions of bimodal PE in Europe. BP Solvay Polyethylene NA currently imports enhanced PE resin to the United States and all three firms watch for a suitable time to consider U.S. production.
Asian makers of enhanced PE include Mitsui Chemicals Inc. of Osaka, Japan; Toho Tenax Co. Ltd. of Tokyo; Samsung Cheil Industries in Seoul, South Korea; and Thai Petrochemical Industry in Bangkok,Thailand.
Gene Palermo, technical director of the Washington-based PPI, sees significant potential for PE in the water market.
``The public and government officials need to be made aware of the millions of gallons of water that are lost due to leaking pipes across the country. PE [heat-fused pressure pipe] does not leak. That is why it is used in the gas industry.''
Dow's polyolefins and elastomers business group in Houston launched new PE materials for water and natural gas applications in late 2001 and is seeking early standards acceptance in the United States. Dow invested in Unipol II process technology and conducted five years of research and development to get the right molecular structure, said Kevin Wettstein, the group's marketing manager for durables and pipe.
``The enhanced materials allow an end user to go to higher pressures or down-gauge materials and save'' on resin purchases.
Wettstein cited key considerations: material science advances allow pipe producers to broaden product ranges; ISO standards are gaining momentum in North America; the evolution will position PE for fast growth; and better cost effectiveness will open new markets.
Still, some involved in the debate counsel caution and patience.
``Being a tough material, PE has some advantages, but those must be recognized in a rational way,'' said Stanley Mruk, a member of PPI's Hydrostatic Stress Board. Mruk was PPI technical director and then executive director through 1994.
The PE community ``should not be competing with PVC,'' Mruk said. ``We should provide waterworks people with PE as an alternative material. The evolution in standards has to be guided so no missteps occur. I am rooting for PE - particularly the modern materials - to get recognition, and I hope it will be done so the recognition will be permanent.''
Excellent ductility enables PE pipe to survive an earthquake better than more rigid materials such as PVC or ductile iron.
PE will not crack under tough tests, but its current design strength is lower than that of PVC for the same pressure rating. That results in PE pipe with a thick wall structure and excessive cost burden.
Rating for ``pressure is the biggest single challenge in introducing materials to the North American market, but [we] must not lose sight of other properties,'' such as resistance to rapid crack and slow crack growth, said Steve Sandstrum, manager of product development in Deer Park, Texas, for BP Solvay.