The firm will take a big sustainability step in June when it opens a pilot plant making polyols from carbon dioxide at its site in Dormagen, Germany. This precursor will be used primarily in flexible foam applications such as upholstery and mattresses.
Small-scale tests have shown that PU elastomers made using this process have the same qualities as those produced from petrochemicals. At the same time, the new process is more energy efficient and uses lower volumes of solvents than traditional processes do, Covestro officials have said.
Using carbon dioxide in this way conserves oil and expands the base of raw materials used in the chemical and plastics industries. Using less oil also means fewer processing steps to produce an elastomer, which reduces overall CO2 emissions and energy consumption, officials added.
Northcote said that the financial term “return on capital employed” (ROCE), should be interpreted as return on carbon employed. “We have a great opportunity to look at the life cycle of a product and see how much carbon was saved,” he explained.
The major drop in the price of global oil that's been seen since mid-2014 has in some ways hurt sustainability programs by making virgin resins less expensive when compared to recycled materials. But Northcote said that price drop hasn't impacted Covestro's sustainability work.
“We expected to see some impact from low oil in polyurethane insulation foam, where energy savings is important, but we really haven't,” he said. “The [sustainability] discussion is still on. It's no longer about the cost of energy, it's about preventing damage to the environment.
“We need to work up and down the chain and work with others. The amount of investment is on the rise in sustainable products,” he said.
Lightweight Covestro PU materials also are being used on Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane that is in the process of a global flight. It's a larger, upgraded version of a similar plane that flew across America in 2013.
The plane's cockpit features Covestro lightweight foam insulation as well as adhesives and coatings made by the firm. Covestro PU products also are used for the aircraft door. The firm also supplied PC/carbon composite material for the locks, plus thin sheets of transparent, high-performance PC for the window.
The plane took off from Hawaii April 21 on its way to North America. The plane landed there on July 3 after making a flight of almost 118 hours from Japan. The plane's solar batteries overheated during the flight, but have since been repaired. It has completed 13 test flights since February.
Depending on weather, the plane could land in Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Vancouver, depending on final conditions during the flight. From there, the mission will then continue onward to New York, Europe or North Africa and then to Abu Dhabi where the voyage began.
Covestro employs 14,200 worldwide and posted sales of 12.1 billion euros ($13.6 billion) in 2015, up almost 3 percent vs. 2014. The firm generates 47 percent of its sales from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America; 26 percent from North America; and 15 percent from China.
Automotive is Covestro's largest end market with a 22 percent share. Its next two largest end markets are construction at 19 percent and furniture at 18 percent.