Düsseldorf, Germany — Space is the place for Braskem's Green Plastic.
The sugarcane-based material recently was used on the International Space Station to make a pipe connector for a vegetable irrigation system. The part was made by the Additive Manufacturing Facility, which is the first commercial 3-D printer permanently allocated in space.
São Paulo-based Braskem worked with NASA supplier Made In Space to develop a Green Plastic solution specially for 3-D printing in zero gravity. “This is a great application that proves the value of our material,” Braskem America CEO Mark Nikolich said in an Oct. 22 interview at K 2016 in Düsseldorf.
The technology allows astronauts to fabricate tools and spare parts in space using the bio-based resin, which officials said effectively increases the autonomy of space missions. The partnership will enable astronauts to receive by email digital designs of the parts and then print them, which means dramatic savings in terms of time and costs, they added.
Green Plastic is a bio-based polyethylene that Braskem produces at plants in Brazil. Officials said the material was chosen for the project because of its combination of properties, such as flexibility, chemical resistance and recyclability, and also because it's made from a renewable resource. The equipment's printing bed is made of Braskem's ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), which is marketed under the Utec trade name.
At K 2016, Braskem also spotlighted high-melt strength grades of polypropylene. The material can be converted into low density foam with a uniform cell structure, Nikolich said. The foam can be used as thermal and acoustic insulation in car doors and similar applications. Packaging applications for the material also are being developed, he added.
In addition to its dominant role in South American production of both PE and PP, Braskem ranks as North America's largest PP maker. The firm recently opened a new PE plant in Mexico through a joint venture with Mexican conglomerate Grupo Idesa SA de CV.
The North American PP market has had an eventful year in 2016. Prices first rose, then fell, then rose again, as domestic producers dealt with substantial amounts of competition from imported material for the first time in many years. Imports were able to access the North American market as tight supplies of propylene feedstock and a lack of new capacity drove up prices for PP resin and led existing PP sites to be running at close to full production.
“For a long period of time, North American polypropylene was a global exporter, then it became high-priced vs. the rest of the world because of propylene costs,” Nikolich said. “There had been no new capacity since 2003, so when there was demand growth in 2015 and 2016, it stretched the asset base and made those assets run hard.”
After as few months of increased imports, North American prices had fallen to the point where they were no longer able to benefit from North American demand. But without new capacity, Nikolich said the same thing could happen next year — although perhaps in a less extreme way.
Braskem is doing its part to improve North American PP supply by undertaking a feasibility study for a new billion-pound-per-year PP plant in LaPorte, Texas. The plant would open in early 2019 and would be supplied with propylene from a PDH unit operated by Enterprise Products in Mont Belvieu, Texas. The feasibility study will be completed by the end of this year.
“We're very excited about the [LaPorte] project,” Nikolich said. “We're the biggest propylene buyer in North America, and we've found a unique ability to source.”
Overall, Braskem expects moderate PP demand growth of 1.5-2.5 percent annually for the next five years, he added. This new demand is expected to come primarily from automotive and industrial applications, with some coming from rigid packaging as well.
“We're seeing some reshoring and investment from the converter base,” Nikolich explained. “Exports [of PP] got repatriated when the material was needed domestically, but North America is likely to be an exporter again in the future.”
The Mexican project is Ethylene XXI, a $5.2 billion petrochemical complex in Coatzacoalcos. The site has two high density PE lines with a total of almost 1.7 billion pounds of annual capacity and an LDPE line with almost 700 million pounds of annual capacity. The JV is 75 percent owned by Braskem, with Grupo Idesa owning the remaining 25 percent.
“The project has been successfully commissioned, and all three lines are running,” Nikolich said. “It can supply into North America or wherever polyethylene is needed.”
Braskem employs 8,000 worldwide and has annual sales of around $17 billion. The firm has total annual capacity of more than 44 billion pounds of plastics and chemicals. Braskem is jointly owned by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and by Petrobras, Brazil's national oil firm.