19 December 2012 13:19 [Source: ICIS news]
By Janos Gal
LONDON (ICIS)--Innovative uses of polycarbonate (PC) in the automotive and construction industries could soak up surplus material in the global market in the long term, sources said on Wednesday.
Current supply of PC outweighs demand as a result of new plants coming online globally and because of falling car sales and construction output affecting most parts of the world. Because traditional PC applications in downstream industries cannot consume current output, prices have dropped and the market has become long.
This could change in the long run if new applications, such as sunroofs and side windows in cars, bus stop and bicycle shelter roofs, new lighting techniques, and stadium and railway station roofs replace heavier glass.
The potential is enormous because glass is the most widely used structural part that allows light into a building or a car, and it is also used to make light emitting diodes (LEDs) plus a long list of other things.
However, a downside of glass is that it is heavy and its manufacture is energy intensive and expensive, so replacing it with PC could reduce a structure's weight and allow for new designs.
"All major PC producers have tried to break into the automotive glazing markets, but so far there has been no major breakthrough because of difficulties with the production process," a major PC buyer from the automotive industry said.
However, "on the longer term it definitely has a lot of potential because of its light weight," the same buyer said.
The biggest drawback is that car manufacturers would need expensive new machinery to replace glass with PC on a large and profitable scale, and another machinery to apply special coating to make the PC glazing scratch resistant.
"Right now, using PC costs more than glass, and glass is also perceived more valuable and safer," the buyer said.
A major Asian PC producer was more optimistic about future applications and the penetration potential of plastics.
"There is a widespread tendency to use PC for [car] glazing and in headlamps, and we believe in its future in cars," the PC producer said.
The latest, more futuristic cars are made of a lot more composites and plastics and this trend will not stop because of legislations to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions which can be achieved by reducing a car's weight.
For example, BMW's aluminium and composites i3 concept car makes use of PC in the sunroof and other parts.
SABIC Innovative Plastics announced this week its partnership with Italian car maker Fiat to produce the rear side windows of the new 500L range with its PC.
"These high-performance SABIC materials help reduce weight by about 35%, improve aerodynamic efficiency and achieve the desired styling vs glass," a SABIC-IP statement said.
The Fiat 500L has already launched in Europe and is set to roll out in the US in early 2013.
"The Fiat 500L windows demonstrate the practical application of PC glazing in today’s mass production vehicles and the continued traction of PC glazing in the automotive industry," the statement added.
PC is not only used in the automotive industry. More recently many construction projects discovered its advantages of weight-saving and the flexibility it provides when architects need to tackle special shapes and structures.
Examples are the Emirates Stadium's roof in the UK, a number of Olympic stadia around the world including the Athen's Olympic stadium or the Sochi 2014 winter Olympic stadium, the Regina, Saskatchewan football stadium and a number of railway station refurbishment projects that replaced glass roofs with PC.
One industry where the penetration of PC could be halted is the medical sector because of perceived health risks involved with the use of biphenol A (BPA) a feedstock for PC production.
Recent research suggests that BPA causes cancer and that it is dangerous to health, which resulted in a national ban in France in all food packaging and many other countries opted to ban BPA in baby food packaging.
"There is concern about BPA in the medical industry, but demand could go up from the automotive, lighting or construction sectors," a PC trader said.
Follow Janos Gal on Twitter @janosgalICIS
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