09 August 2013 09:24 [Source: ICB]
Polycarbonate (PC) resins are tough thermoplastics with uses in optical media, the electrical, electronic and automotive industries and in glazing and sheet products.
They are available in different grades and can be extruded, blow- and injection-moulded. PC is also used in compounds or blended with other resins such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) or polybutylene terephthalate (PBT).
PC is an engineered plastic produced from bisphenol A (BPA). Aside from the automotive segment, market strength has come from two other major market areas - the electrical/electronic and glazing and sheet sectors.
PC weighs much less than glass and can be injected or moulded to produce various shapes for an assortment of purposes and is used in optical media such as CDs and DVDs, housing, aircraft and missile components, water cooler bottles, safety helmets, medical equipment, as well as eyeglasses.
Market demand for PC and other plastics has been subdued and is expected to continue to remain low during the next two or three quarters because of lacklustre demand from the downstream automotive and construction industries.
In Europe, a drive towards better fuel efficiency is pushing designers to attempt to find areas in which plastics can replace heavier metal or glass, which can reduce fuel consumption. Feedstock supply has become long in 2013 and it is unlikely this will change in 2014 because of weak demand from the epoxy resins and PC sectors. Demand from the European automotive industry is weak.
Consumption from the optical media sector, the largest end-user for PC, is declining as iPods and personal PCs take over from CDs and DVDs. Although demand from Blu-ray players is stimulating high growth rates for discs, it is not enough to compensate for the contraction in CDs and DVDs. Automotive will remain an important sector for PC, with some very promising developments for new demand, for example in glazing.
European PC prices have remained more or less unchanged for more than a year because of weak demand. This is at a time when feedstock costs have increased substantially, eroding PC producers' margins. Although PC sellers have made several attempts at increasing prices, they did not achieve any of them because of long supply and poor demand.
Market participants keep an eye on the cost of benzene, a key building block for PC's feedstocks, phenol, acetone and BPA. The contract price for benzene, as well as the spot price, hit all-time highs in 2012 and 2013 and the future looks similarly volatile because of high oil prices.
There are two processes to make PC: interfacial and melt technology. In interfacial polymerization, alkali salts of BPA in aqueous solution are phosgenated in the presence of an inert solvent. Environmental and cost issues have forced producers to seek non-phosgene routes.
All take the same approach - where polymerisation relies on the transesterification of diphenyl carbonate with BPA. This is the melt process, as the two-stage polymerisation takes place without solvents. The melt process has accounted for most of the new capacity in the past five years - about 80% of melt-process plants are in Asia and the Middle East.
Development work is focusing on a new route, involving the copolymerisation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and propylene oxide (PO) or other epoxides through catalytic reaction to aliphatic PC. This route has already been commercialised on a limited scale in China.
The use of PC in the automotive sector offers the potential for continued strong growth once car sales begin to recover.
Blending/compounding PC with other materials such as ABS should also continue to see strength. PC is benefiting from improved demand from the automotive segment in the US, Europe and Asia. Sales of new cars and light trucks in Europe are likely to continue their long decline in 2013 and 2014, and this is proving to be a very negative sign for the PC industry, as well as other plastics.
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