The looming global shortage in nylon 12 resin might be putting automakers in a tough spot, but it also could create opportunities for producers of other grades of nylon.
Industry veterans contacted this week by Plastics News cited nylon 6/10, 6/11, 6/12 and 10/10 as possible replacements for nylon 12 in fuel-line applications and other auto-related uses.
The nylon 12 market has been in turmoil since March 31, when an explosion and fire at a plant making cyclododecatriene (CDT), a nylon 12 feedstock, resulted in two deaths and placed severe limits on nylon 12 production. The plant in Marl, Germany, is owned and operated by Evonik Industries AG.
Evonik is one of only four nylon 12 makers serving the market, along with Arkema Group, Ube Industries Ltd. and EMS-Grivory. Total global production is no more than 100 million pounds, with Evonik being the only nylon 12 maker producing its own CDT feedstock. BASF SE and Invista also produce CDT, but don't make nylon 12.
Nylon 12 has taken on an increasing percentage of the global market for automotive fuel lines in recent years for several reasons, including increased use of ethanol. Auto suppliers hosted a rare summit in the Detroit area April 17 to address the issue.
Arkema is offering its own bio-based nylon 10/10 and 10/12 resins to customers as a replacement for nylon 12, technical polymers business director Aurelien Paumier said in an April 20 phone interview. From a chemical standpoint, those materials are closest to nylon 12, he said. Several Arkema customers now are sampling those products as potential replacements.
Arkema produces bio-based nylon 10/10 at sites in Shanghai and in Normandy, France. The Shanghai site also makes bio-based nylon 10/12. Arkema acquired those products late last year when it bought two Chinese firms — bioplastics maker Hipro Polymers and bio-based feedstock supplier Casda Biomaterials.
Another Arkema material that Paumier said could function as a nylon 12 replacement is its bio-based nylon 11, but the firm's production of that material already was sold out even before it recently was taken down for maintenance. Arkema's production of bio-based nylon 11 is expected to resume in the third quarter. Some Japanese automakers already had been using the material in fuel lines, he added.
Colombes, France-based Arkema buys CDT from Evonik and other suppliers that Paumier declined to identify. Since the accident, Arkema has been able to source some additional volume from its suppliers, but Paumier said that the additional amount “doesn't cover our entire nylon 12 needs,” which is why it's offering nylon 10/10 and 10/12 instead. Arkema makes nylon 12 resins and compounds at a plant in Birdsboro, Pa, as well as at sites in France and China. In North America, EMS-Grivory produces nylon 12 compounds in Sumter, S.C.
Invista spokesperson Jodie Stutzman said that her firm's CDT plant in Victoria, Texas, is “running hard” and that Invista “is working to squeeze out as much [CDT] as we can.” Stutzman declined to provide capacity information for the plant or to say which or how many of the four nylon 12 makers buy CDT from Invista.
Stutzman did add, however, that Invista has a lot of its CDT capacity committed to existing customers, and that the Wichita, Kan.-based firm “has limited excess capacity after supply agreements are filled.”
One automotive supply executive who attended the supplier forum told Plastics News that original equipment manufacturers “will need to drive the approved material options.”
At the summit, the executive said that injection molding firms were offered material options, but that “there was no real solution for flexible fuel lines.”
“The problem as I see it is that people have used nylon 12 in very small applications as part of a subassembly,” he said. “These different ‘silent' applications are coming out of the woodwork and creating chaos.”
Radici Plastics USA has been contacted by numerous nylon 12 processors in recent weeks looking for a nylon 12 replacement, marketing manager Bill Atwood said in an April 18 phone interview. Radici has responded by offering its nylon 6/10 materials, which were developed to compete with nylon 12, he explained.
Radici's nylon 6/10 can provide good moisture absorption and resistance to salt and chemicals, added Atwood, who attended the supplier summit. It's also a sustainable material, since 60 percent of its content comes from castor beans.
Global plastics and chemicals giant DuPont is offering its Zytel-brand nylon 6/6 and high-temperature nylon — as well as Hytrel-brand thermoplastic elastomer — as potential replacements for nylon 12, a spokesperson with the Wilmington, Del.-based firm said. DuPont's specialty nylon 6/10, 6/12 and 10/10 grades also might provide options.
“We are working with customers to identify alternatives that may work in their application,” the spokeswoman said. “It depends on which application and it's not limited to just those materials. There likely won't be a ‘one answer fits all' solution.”
At Chase Plastic Services Inc., a resin distribution firm in Clarkston, Mich., owner Kevin Chase said that the firm has been offering 6/12 as a possible replacement to processors who are seeking nylon 12. Chase Plastic previously carried nylon 12, but has not had it regularly in stock since supplies began to tighten a couple of years ago, Kevin Chase said.
“This [shortage] is really hitting the majors, more than the smaller processors,” he added.
Substituting other materials in intense auto applications also requires testing of up to 5,000 hours, Atwood said. He said he's unsure if automakers would reduce those limits because of the current nylon 12 scenario.
In most cases, replacement materials would cost a bit less than nylon 12, which sources said was selling for at least $5 per pound, even before the accident in Germany. The material had sold for around $4 per pound just a couple of years ago, but tightness and increased demand drove the price up, sources added.
One issue that could complicate finding a nylon 12 replacement, according to market analyst Paul Blanchard, is the ability to make fuel lines and tubing to the same dimensions as nylon 12.
“This gets more complicated because we're talking about systems with multilayer tubes,” said Blanchard, who is with IHS Chemical in Houston. “Each has a different wall thickness, and changing material can change the critical dimensions of the part.”
The current nylon 12 situation “points out again how even the largest and most savvy buyers, such as Tier 1 automotive suppliers, can be surprised by ‘gotchas' lurking in the raw materials supply chain,” said Phil Karig, owner of Mathelin Bay Associates LLC consulting firm in St. Louis.
He added that there was “danger inherent” in having Arkema dependent on Evonik for “critical raw materials” when they both were selling into the same market.
Market analyst Greg Smith added that the nylon 12 shortage is “a very difficult situation,” because the resin is sole-specified into a lot of applications.
Nylon 12 “is a good material because of its heat characteristics and physical characteristics,” said Smith, who is with Resin Technologies Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas. “But a lot of the time it takes a situation like this to communicate that it's best to have more than one material available.”
The current nylon 12 turmoil has drawn widespread media coverage and required even officials with the Big Three automakers to comment on what's essentially a niche resin.
Nylon 12 “has been around for a long time, and had been a sleepy little guy until now,” Blanchard said.