Chemtura highlights collaborative approach to innovation and commercialization

Breakthrough!

06 October 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Innovation and commercialization is a joint effort between companies, customers and business divisions, according to Chemtura executives

"EUREKA!" OR "I have found it!" the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes supposedly exclaimed on discovering the phenomenon of volume displacement in the bathtub.

One lone scientist, spending countless solitary hours in the lab (rather than the tub) until the moment he discovers a breakthrough is what comes to mind when many of us think about innovation.

But innovation today is often a collaborative effort, between supplier and customer, research teams from different divisions, or between commercial and scientific staff.

At Middlebury, Connecticut, US-based specialty chemical company Chemtura, innovation starts with dialogue with customers. "We focus on developing a deep understanding of the drivers for our customers' growth, or what problems or lost opportunities are preventing them from growing," says Matthew Hellstern, vice president, urethanes. "We attempt to understand the impact to the customer if these problems were resolved or lost opportunities realized."

In early 2008, Chemtura's urethanes team went out to dozens of customers in the industrial, transportation, recreational and military sectors to find out what was preventing these urethane users from achieving their goals.

Major problems for molders and processors include waste of material, short pot life (working time before the material solidifies), high worker turnover, the complexity of the final product, and worker safety and training issues relating to exposure to toluene di-isocyanate (TDI) or 4,4-methylene-bis (2-chloroaniline - MOCA)-based products.

Lastly, one critical problem was that large or intricate parts were simply not possible to cast out of polyurethanes (PUs) because of technological constraints.

"For some multitonne products, you only have five to 10 minutes to fill the mold. But that's often not possible because of pump limitations," says Phani Nagaraj, global marketing manager for performance specialties - urethanes. "To make a 12-foot [3.7m] tire for mining vehicles, which can weigh 4 tonnes, it can take a long time to fill the molds."

After receiving and analyzing this customer feedback, the firm worked on developing the right technology to address these issues.

"We recognized that if we developed a novel prepolymer with a proprietary curing agent, we could supply a solution that enabled customers to manufacture products with equal or better-finished properties, while addressing all their concerns," says Hellstern.

Thus came the development of Adiprene Duracast, a urethane prepolymer with a long pot life (hours rather than minutes) but with a quick demold, which allows customers to pour parts of all sizes, from grams to tonnes. This would allow manufacturers to cut waste, because short pot life often leads to mistakes in the molding process and wasted material.

"This breakthrough technology not only helps existing customers but makes the pie bigger, as this product can now replace metal, PVC plastics and other materials," says Vimal Sharma, Americas business director for the Adiprene/Vibrathane urethanes business. "This is a new frontier for hot-cast elastomers. We can now ask customers: 'What opportunities have you previously turned away?'"

HEALTH AND SAFETY BENEFITS

On health and safety, workers would benefit from not being exposed to TDI and MOCA, which, typically, are contained in urethane systems. "You wouldn't ordinarily think that high worker turnover was something that could be addressed by a product, but that's why gathering all the feedback from customers is so important," says Hellstern.

Another major benefit of using Adiprene Duracast is that it can lower capital and operating costs, according to Chemtura.

"The product requires minimal or no modifications to equipment," says Sharma. "Even to produce large parts, you don't need to buy new equipment, such as mixers and pumps. It's also easy to use, with long pot life and faster demold times, so you don't need highly skilled workers to make high-quality products." End-use products that can be made with Adiprene Duracast include tires, industrial belts, grain hoppers, oil drilling shaft linings and pipeline cleaning devices, known as "pigs".

Five full-time employees in Middlebury were dedicated to the research and development (R&D) efforts, including chemists, engineers and project managers. In August, Adiprene Duracast was officially introduced.

The response from customers has been overwhelming, says Hellstern, adding that the product has the potential to generate sales of $100m (€72m)/year or more with volumes of "thousands of tonnes. By making this a collaborative approach, we were able to engage customers early and make them part of the overall solution," he adds. "This has resulted in exceptionally high interest levels, enabling us to make a substantial planned capital investment in this breakthrough technology."

In Chemtura's petroleum additives business, innovation is inspired by customers, who will often demand new specifications to comply with regulations. "For example, the market and customers require that we produce products with lower SAPs [sulfated ash, phosphorus and sulfur]. We are constantly striving to meet and exceed the developing market standards and regulations," says Gerard Mulqueen, vice president of automotive and global business development. "However, we also look to develop more disruptive technologies."

The business sought what it calls the "Holy Grail" of petroleum additives - "an antiwear additive that's basically carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (CHO), so that it burns cleanly when blowby occurs," says David Sikora, vice president, technology for performance specialties.

Most antiwear additives are based on zinc dithiophosphate (ZDDP). The zinc forms ash, which can clog particle filters, and sulfur and phosphorus in the compound have the potential to poison catalytic converters, he notes.

In spring 2005, the company conducted a brainstorming session in Middlebury, inviting scientists from all businesses to think about how to develop the next generation of antiwear agent without phosphorus or sulfur.

"Conventional wisdom was that it would have to contain sulfur or phosphorus or metals," says Sikora. "We had some concepts but we sought to reinvigorate them."

After trading ideas, ultimately, a scientist from the petroleum additives business came up with a potential solution. Its merit was confirmed in the laboratory.

The executive team's knowledge of chemistry also plays an important role in innovation, according to Sean O' Connor, vice-president of petroleum additives.

"Many of our executives are chemists and still keep their hand in in chemistry. You'll even see chemical structures on the walls of offices," says O' Connor. "The love of chemistry and how to convert this to profitable growth is consistent throughout."

Chemtura's chief business officer (CBO) Robert Wedinger, is also a chemist. "Certainly, it is motivational when your CBO can talk chemistry," says Sikora. "It is motivational to scientists when you have commercial people who understand and appreciate it."

So Chemtura filed for a patent in 2005, formulated and tested the product in 2006, and then went to its customers - motor oil manufacturers - in 2007.

"We produced a set of technical test work to illustrate the benefits of the product. Then we visited targeted customers, presented the information and worked with them to determine how best it would work in their formulations," says Mulqueen.

In February 2008, the CHO antiwear petroleum additive Naugalube 810 was launched. Although the product does not contain ZDDP, it is synergistic with ZDDP formulations, allowing motor oil producers to cut ZDDP usage by about half, says Sikora.

"ZDDP has been used for many years, and an additive that allows reduction in SAPs is very beneficial," says Mulqueen. "This way, formulators can get confidence in the product, and are able to reduce SAPs over time, as the industry requires."

The phosphorus and sulfur-free product can also foster the launch of "green" motor oils, which have been popular in Europe, notes O' Connor. "Some drivers in Germany are willing to pay three to four times more for green lubricants."

He sees sales of Naugalube 810 significantly topping $10m/year in the near future. Chemtura is now working on the next generation Naugalube 812, which will focus on friction modification to improve fuel economy.

NEVER LOSE THE FAITH

In the organization, closer relationships between technology and business staff are key to developing new products faster, points out O' Connor. "The old concept was that at the company annual meeting, projects were picked and the R&D staff would then go off to work on them. Then, a year later, they would tell you how it was going," he says. "Today, things need to change more quickly and there needs to be closer alignment between business and technology people."

But ultimately, it comes down to the belief that innovation will fuel financial performance. "Since the old days, we never lost faith in the power of new products to drive financial results," says O' Connor. "Many have lost it, but we have not."

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By: Joseph Chang
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