COLUMBUS, OHIO — The future of Ohio's polymer industry remains bright, thanks to ongoing development of new plastic materials.
More than 200 industry executives and state officials gathered June 2 at a networking event in Columbus. The event was hosted by the PolymerOhio Network trade group and featured updates from three Ohio specialty material firms: Ashland Performance Materials of Dublin, Zyvex Performance Materials of Columbus and Ovation Polymers Inc. of Medina.
Ohio is home to more than 2,800 polymer-based companies that employ more than 140,000, making plastics one of Ohio's largest industries. The state also is home to seven polymer research programs that are housed at colleges and universities.
In recent years, the polymer industry has received more than $200 million in grants from the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, a state effort to invest $1.6 billion in high-tech research and innovation between 2002 and 2012.
Zyvex might provide the best testimonial for Ohio's polymer market, since the firm relocated to Ohio from Texas in 2007. Majority owner and founder James Von Ehr II said Zyvex made the move because Ohio “was at the center of [Zyvex's] supply chain,” which included the University of Akron and Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, and materials firms Owens Corning of Toledo, PolyOne Corp. of Avon Lake and Hexion Specialty Chemicals Inc. of Columbus.
Zyvex employs 20 and makes specialty plastics from carbon nanotubes, which Von Ehr said can be 100 times stronger than steel in some applications while also providing lighter weight.
To date, Zyvex parts have been used in a number of sporting goods applications such as hockey sticks, baseball bats and shafts for golf clubs.
The company's material also has been used in sailboat masts. A 54-foot boat made from Zyvex material could reduce its weight from 23,000 pounds to as low as 7,500 pounds, Von Ehr said.
Future applications include aerospace parts, which Zyvex is approaching with its part-owner, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. Materials firm Arkema Inc. also invested in Zyvex last year as well.
Zyvex plans to increase its workforce by 30 people in the near future, bringing its total staff to more than 50. And the firm — in conjunction with PolyOne — recently was awarded a $4.9 million Third Frontier grant.
“We're in good position to ramp up production with partners we couldn't do business with even a year ago,” Von Ehr said.
For Ashland, new vinyl ester resins are allowing the firm to offer substantial savings to makers of turbine blades in the wind power industry. Those savings — through better cycle times and elimination of post-cure time needed by standard epoxy resin — can reduce costs by one-third, according to Cedric Ball, Ashland's marketing projects leader for wind products.
Although Ohio is not a big player in wind-energy generation, the state's wind-energy supply chain and logistics are unmatched, according to Ball, because of its experience with polymers and composites and its manufacturing base for large castings, fasteners and other turbine parts.
Ashland's Ohio-based wind-energy partners include the University of Dayton, Owens Corning and plastics processor Molder Fiber Glass Cos. of Ashtabula.
At Ovation, specialty compounding of ultrahigh-performance materials already has produced 14 patents, with six others pending, according to Chairman James Petras.
Petras also is managing general partner of Early Stage Partners LP, a Cleveland-based investment firm whose investors include the Ohio Department of Development. ESP is part-owner of Ovation, which was founded in 2004 by industry veteran Asis Banerjie.
Ovation now operates a 70,000-square-foot plant that produces a range of compounds for use in electronics, alternative energy, health science, fiber optics, aerospace and other fields.
“What we like [about Ovation] as an investor is the marriage of formulation chemistry with process execution,” Petras said.
The efforts of Zyvex, Ashland and Ovation provide hope in a challenging economic climate, according to Ohio Polymer Strategy Council Chairman Thomas Waltermire.
Waltermire has more than 30 years of plastics experience, with BFGoodrich Co., Geon Co. and PolyOne, and currently serves as CEO of Team Northeast Ohio (Team NEO), a Cleveland-based economic development group.
Ohio's polymer industry “is recreating itself for a growth curve that's right in front of us,” Waltermire said.