Castor chemical development increases

Cracking castor's code

03 April 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Castor-based chemicals are making a comeback, but few companies have the technology to participate as innovators

INDIA HAS long been the home of castor oil production and processing, but when it comes to developing higher-performance castor oil derivatives, the country lags.

One reason is the complexity of castor derivative chemistry and processing, but another is too little understanding of the end-use markets, says Larry Slovin, who is now the president and CEO of US-based B&P Process Equipment and Systems, Slovin was previously president of the performance materials business of US specialty chemical company Vertellus.

Among all fats and oils, castor is the only one having a high proportion of ricinoleic fatty acid, a hydroxy fatty acid that is highly valued within the chemical industry.

Applications being developed for castor oil include base oil for lubricants, functional fluids and process oils; feedstock for fuels and oleochemicals; and a reactive component for paints, coatings and inks, and polymers and foams.

"There is a tremendous growth opportunity for castor-based chemicals, but companies interested must commit to research and development," says Slovin. "Indian companies so far don't have the wherewithal to develop any higher-performance chemicals out of castor. They basically take the castor oil molecule and modify it a bit."

This might change with a recent joint research commitment between US chemical giant Dow Chemical's Indian operation, Dow Chemical International Pvt. Ltd (Dow India) and India-based Royal Castor Products.

The two companies intend to conduct research into new castor oil-based products. In January, when the agreement was announced, Royal Castor director Haresh Vyas spoke of achieving major breakthroughs for India's chemical industry.

Dow India spokesman Roysten D'mello says there have been no concrete decisions yet regarding time lines for product commercialization.

"Over a period of the next few months, specific chemicals would be identified from research and analysis of market needs and commercial viability," he says. "The basic challenges are the availability of suitable technology and a means to validate the commercial viability of research activity done at a laboratory level."

D'mello says the partnership, Dow's first initiative in castor oil derivatives, seeks to bridge this gap.

Slovin suggests that Dow is probably trying to catch up on the development of castor oil derivatives for urethanes.

"Several years ago, BASF and Dow decided to make a commitment for natural-based urethanes chemistry. BASF went the castor oil route and Dow chose to work with soybean oil," says Slovin. "The way I read it, Dow is now trying to catch up, as castor in urethanes has been more successful." Urethane chemistry has been a major application for castor oil for many years, he adds.

CASTOR POWER PLAYERS

In 2007, German producer BASF brought back to its plastics portfolio a castor oil-based engineering polymer that the company developed, produced and marketed 50 years ago.

The main driver for the relaunch is increasing customer interest in bio-based plastics, says Matthias Scheibitz, product manager for Ultramid at BASF. BASF's Ultramid Balance, a polyamide 6.10, is comprised around 60% sebacic acid, a castor derivative.

Ultramid Balance is well received in the market not only because it is based on renewable materials but [also] because it has a superior performance compared to the standard polyamides PA6 and PA66," says Scheibitz. "It offers a higher dimensional stability and better resistivity against numerous chemicals."

Another castor-based product that BASF markets is Lupranol Balance, a polyol made up of 31% castor oil by weight. BASF's European polyurethane (PU) subsidiary, Elastogran, produces it mostly for the synthesis of soft PU foams used in mattresses.

CATALYSTS FOR NEW USES

"Castor oil could now be used for the first time as polyol raw material because a special catalyst made it possible to avoid the formation of side products with bad odor," says Scheibitz. "Previous attempts to manufacture polyetherols using renewable materials such as rapeseed, sunflower or olive oil have not been successful because of their odor and emissions levels. There were also disadvantages when it came to processing," he adds.

BASF says more castor oil-based products are in development.

France-based Arkema has also been working with castor derivatives since the early 1940s. It first created its 100% castor oil-based Rilsan polyamide 11 (PA11) mainly to make synthetic fibers as an alternative to another oil-based polyamide: nylon.

Today, Rilsan PA11 is being used in high value-added applications such as fuel lines in cars, offshore pipelines, gas distribution piping systems and in traditional markets such as electronics, sports equipment, furniture and automobile components.

"We have quite a lot of castor-based chemicals in our portfolio. This is a business we are trying to develop actively," says Aurelien Paumier, business director for Arkema's polyamides, North America, division.

"Arkema's target is to get 10% of worldwide revenues from renewable resources by 2012, but the polyamides business is already well beyond this target," he adds.

Aside from Rilsan PA11, the company's high-performance castor-based chemicals line now includes among others its first flexible, high-temperature resin, Rilsan HT, a polymer blend of PA11 and polyphthalamide; Pebax Rnew, a thermoplastic polyamide elastomer that can contain between 20% and 90% castor derivative depending on applications; Platamid Rnew, a 100% bio-based hot melt adhesive; and the newly launched Rilsan Clear Rnew, a transparent polyamide that contains 54% castor derivatives.

"Arkema has other renewable-based products such as our epoxidized vegetable oils, but beyond that, we put most of our stock in castor," says Paumier. "Our castor chemicals manufacture uses very complex processes. A lot of competitors have tried to copy them for decades but they never get to the efficiency that we do." Paumier says much of Arkema's effort is focused on new molecules, as well as new applications and blends from castor derivatives.

At the same time that BASF launched its Ultramid Balance and Arkema its Pebax Rnew and Platamid Rnew in 2007, US-based DuPont also introduced its Zytel long-chain polyamides PA10 and PA610, both based on sebacic acid. The PA10 has 100% renewable content and PA610 has over 60%.

Zytel 610 had its application debut in January on a new automotive radiator end tank manufactured by Japan-based automobile parts manufacturer Denso. Denso plans to mass produce the castor-based resin radiator tank this spring for vehicles sold worldwide.

"In addition to the radiator tank, we plan to incorporate the new resin into a wide range of products in an effort to reduce the use of limited oil resources and carbon dioxide emissions during a product's life cycle, and help prevent global warming," said Akio Shikamura, manager of Denso's Thermal Systems Business group in a statement.

The radiator tank resin contains 40% castor derivatives by weight, said Shikamura.

As for Vertellus, the company considers itself more of a custom manufacturer when it comes to formulating new castor derivatives. Company officials did not respond to inquiries, but Slovin says Vertellus's castor development focuses on all potential applications, including industrial, personal care, and urethane markets.

"Vertellus is probably one of the few chemical companies worldwide dedicated to doing continuous R&D [research and development] work in castor chemistry," he adds.

In late 2006, Vertellus expanded its Greensboro, North Carolina, US, facility to ramp up production capacity, as well as R&D for castor oil derivatives.

Castor chemicals R&D in India is also hampered by the price and supply volatility of the castor oil market.

"All those involved in the supply chain - farmers, middlemen, crushers, traders - look at the market with a short-term view," Slovin explains. "My concern now, with petroleum oil at less than $40/bbl, [is that] a lot of the development will slow down."

At its peak last year, the price of castor oil was slightly below $2,000/tonne (€1,480/tonne), notes Slovin, but it is now falling under $1,000/tonne. In 2003-04, it was around $600/tonne.

Marjorie Klayman, president of New York-based castor oil distributor Alnor Oil, also notes that the price of castor oil is dropping after two years of highs.

"Indian farmers planted a very large crop last year trying to take advantage of the high price. Unfortunately, it is being harvested at a time of lower worldwide consumption and therefore prices are falling," she says. "Farmers are unhappy with lower prices and may not plant as much next year which could cause a rebound in prices."

US castor oil imports last year were up by about 20,000 tonnes compared with the 2007 level, according to US-based castor derivatives distributor Acme Hardesty.

"I suspect the derivative business was strong in the first half of 2008 but slowed during the second half," says Ira Katuran, Acme Hardesty's director of sourcing. "Despite new interest and applications for castor oil and derivatives as a renewable material, I would expect the global demand to be down in 2009, considering the poor economic climate around the world."

The past four to five years have seen increasing interest in castor oil and castor consumption, says Klayman. Global imports increased, but times have changed.

"As with most of the economy, consumption started to go flat late last year and will be down about 25% this year. Europe is predicting more than a 30% decline," she adds.

Read Doris de Guzman's Green Chemicals blog


By: Doris de Guzman
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