Polymers: Polycarbonate sees rising competition from new polymer

Source: ECN


Polycarbonate market remains stable, though a growing competitor in the form of Tritan copolyester is catching up

Growing demand for copolymers has prompted US chemical producer Eastman Chemical to expand production capacity for its Tritan copolyester product, which can be used as a replacement for polycarbonate (PC), the company said.

Eastman plans to make the expansions at its Kingsport, Tennessee, US site, which will include an additional 30,000 tonnes/year of capacity and is expected to be on stream by the end of 2011. The total capacity will be well in excess of 60,000 tonnes/year.

"The plant expands production capacity of Tritan and is in alignment with increasing global market demand for the material. Our Tritan business has doubled in 2010. We expect to see double-digit growth in Tritan over the next three years," said an Eastman official.

Annual market growth for traditional copolyesters is estimated at 6-8%. A number of end-markets are driving growth, including food and beverage packaging, shrink film, personal care, and medical applications, said the official.

Eastman said it had expected to sell out Tritan from its first resin facility by the end of 2011, but the company found instead that it will be sold out by the end of the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2010 because demand has been stronger than expected. Tritan is used in a variety of applications including reusable sports water bottles, housewares, small appliances, medical applications and infant care products. As a result, the company expects to have its second Tritan facility on line by the end of 2011.

Eastman first started up a monomer plant at the end of 2009 that could support two 30,000 tonne/year Tritan units. The first of those two Tritan units came on stream in May 2010.

Eastman said its specialty plastics business had continued to gain market share following the May opening of the first new Tritan unit. Copolyesters produced at the Kingsport site can be used to replace PC in items that previously used the controversial bisphenol A (BPA), Eastman reported.

Demand for Tritan has already outpaced the overall growth rate of Eastman's specialty plastics unit, the company said. As a whole, the specialty plastics division is also benefiting from higher volumes of cellulosic plastics sold into the liquid crystal display (LCD) television market, Eastman said.

Eastman has explained that Tritan is often a drop-in replacement for PC in injection-molding applications, while in thermoforming applications, sheets made from Tritan can also easily replace PC in existing operations. Tritan also offers the potential for easier processing, shorter cycle times and energy savings, according to the company.

The copolyester is made from a unique and innovative chemistry that is said to provide reduced molding cycle time, reduced sheet-thermoforming cycle time, more options for preform decoration with vinyls, screen inks, paints and coatings, and a lower transition temperature that can translate into lower energy use, according to Eastman.

In addition, no separate annealing step is required to eliminate residual stress, and there is no need to pre-dry sheets made with Tritan when using it for sign applications.

In comparison, parts molded from PC often require more energy. Sheets extruded from PC, for example, can require pre-drying before thermoforming, which consumes additional time and energy, said Eastman.

US PC prices remained stable for the week ended November 3. However, the rising cost of benzene feedstock was said to have producers considering a price increase nomination.

"Our Tritan business has doubled in 2010. We expect to see double digit growth... over the next three years."
Eastman official

November US benzene contracts rose by 34-35 cents/gal, as assessed by ICIS in the week ended November 3. The rise was fueled by higher spot market prices and strong demand from styrene rubber.

As a result, market participants anticipated that prices for PC could follow the increase in the coming weeks, as the rising feedstock costs makes an impact on the market. Demand for PC typically falls in Q4, though, which could block any price increase efforts, one market source said.

However, strong demand from Asia could counter a price hike block, according to another producer, who noted that demand in Asia could lead to a strong export market for US-made PC in the coming weeks.

Asian PC spot prices were reported to be stable to firm in the week ended November 3, with suppliers maintaining strict price discipline because of a recent spike in production costs.

The majority of PC makers in Asia were locked in negotiations around price increases of $100-200/tonne (€71-142/tonne) for November shipment, as assessed by ICIS.

Meanwhile, sluggish derivative demand weighed on sentiment, and attempts to raise prices were met with strong resistance from buyers in Asia.

In the week ended November 3, US PC spot bulk prices were in the range of $1.50-1.60/lb ($3,307/tonne, €2417/tonne) for molding and extrusion grades, as assessed by ICIS.

The call for PC also remained stable, with the strongest demand still coming from the automotive segment. In comparison, demand in consumer electronics and optical media was flat.

On the supply front, supply was said to be available, although at least one producer reported it was operating in sold-out mode.

Additional reporting by Brian Ford, John Dietrich and Ben DuBose in Houston