Ascend Performance Materials sharpens focus on EV transition, carbon footprint – CEO

Joseph Chang


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (ICIS)–US-based Ascend Performance Materials will sharpen its focus on the electric vehicle (EV) transition, as well as dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of its products, its CEO said on Monday.

“Our auto business has remained strong. We see good growth in the e-mobility space in thermal management around batteries, and our AVS [anti-vibration system] for vibration dampening is performing nicely for us,” said Phil McDivitt, CEO of Ascend Performance Materials.

McDivitt spoke to ICIS on the sidelines of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Annual Meeting.

As a producer of specialty nylon (polyamide) 6,6 and other polymer compounds, the company sells around 25-30% more materials by volume into EVs versus traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, making the EV transition a “net positive” for the company, he pointed out.

Ascend has developed a number of new EV-focused products. In October 2022, it introduced Vydyne AVS made from nylon 6,6 which dampens high-frequency vibration from motors and compressors, reducing cabin sound pressure by 80%.

At the same time, it also unveiled Starflam X-Protect flame retardant nylon 6,6 that can withstand exposure to 1,100°C direct flame for 15 minutes to protect against thermal runaway, according to the company.

The company is developing more flame retardant and specialty nylons, including tubing to move battery coolants throughout EVs, noted the CEO.

Ascend also sees a big opportunity to leverage its November 2022 acquisition of US-based Circular Polymers, which produces recycled nylon 6, nylon 6,6, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) from post-consumer carpets.

“Effectively there is [minimal] carbon footprint, and this provides feedstocks for redefined compounds. Instead of carpets going to landfill, we collect and mechanically recycle them in a completely dry process with no chemicals at all,” said McDivitt.

Ascend’s technology team is working to mix the recycled polymers with other materials, and working with customers to identify applications that are best suited for recycled content, he added.

The company is seeing demand pull for recycled and low-carbon products from every end-market – from automotive, consumer, electronics and high-performance fibres and textiles.

Ascend’s customers’ Scope 3 emissions, much of which come from the raw materials they buy, represent 80-85% of total emissions, with auto original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers being even higher, the CEO pointed out.

“All commitments are for lower carbon footprint products and higher recycled content. Our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of our products by 50% by 2030,” said McDivitt.

For now, Ascend will focus on integrating the acquisitions it has made in the past couple of years rather than pursue new deals, especially given the challenging financing market, he noted.

“We’re proud that we were early on [in making sustainability related acquisitions] and we will continue to look at opportunities to put solutions in front of customers to meet their ultimate goals,” said McDivitt.

Back in February 2020, Ascend acquired Italy-based Poliblend, adding capabilities in recycled polymers compounding.

Poliblend produced engineered plastics based on virgin and recycled grades of nylon 6,6, nylon 6, polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) and polyoxymethylene (POM). Key end-markets for Poliblend were furniture, electrical, automotive and sports equipment.

Ascend has invested in emissions abatement technology at its Pensacola, Florida, nylon plant and cogeneration units at its Decatur, Alabama, adiponitrile (ADN) facility. It is also getting about 30% of the energy used at its acrylonitrile (ACN) plant in Alvin, Texas, from solar power.

The company has a proprietary technology internally called Phlogistin to abate nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions at its Pensacola integrated nylon 6,6 site. NOx is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) and a byproduct in the production of adipic acid (ADA), a key feedstock for nylon 6,6.

The company is now working on phase 2 of its emissions abatement project in Pensacola which would take out more than 90% of GHG emissions from that site, and is also looking at using solar power for its Chocolate Bayou, Texas, site where it produces ACN.

For future projects, Ascend is looking into carbon capture and usage (CCU), said McDivitt. Carbon dioxide (CO2) streams could be used to produce methanol, which Ascend uses to produce DME (dimethyl esters).

Its FlexaTrac-DME – a solvent used in paints and coatings, plastic additives, grouting and other applications – is produced by reacting methanol with streams of adipic, glutaric and succinic acids.

On major China nylon 6,6 capacity additions coming in 2023, “there is a lot of optimism for 6,6 going into fibre applications” as opposed to specialty automotive components and other end-markets, the CEO noted.

“Our goal is to build a more differentiated, specialty business which reduces our exposure to commodity cycles,” said McDivitt.

“If you look at the investments we’re making and the new products we’re developing, our sustainable specialties business is growing and will insulate us from short-term impacts,” he added.

In China, Ascend is building a new world-scale hexamethylenediamine (HMDA) plant and specialty chemicals facility in Jiangsu province, China, slated to start up in mid-2023.

HMDA is a key feedstock for nylon 6,6 and is used in other derivatives such as specialty amines for coatings, plastics, personal care and rubber additives.

While HMDA capacity is not being disclosed, the plant will be at a similar scale to Ascend’s two US facilities. Ascend’s HMDA plant in Decatur, Alabama, has a capacity of 155,000 tonnes/year, and its Pensacola plant has a capacity of 130,000 tonnes/year.

The CEO is confident on automotive demand going forward on pent-up demand, a resilient employment picture and peaking interest rates.

“I feel pretty good about underlying demand for auto. During COVID times people bought electronics, but car sales were down,” said McDivitt.

For EVs, China has passed the tipping point where consumers are predominantly choosing EVs whereas in the US, there is still some hesitancy on what type of vehicle to buy next. Meanwhile in Europe, legislation will continue to drive EV momentum, he pointed out.

However, a big question will be the availability of EV battery materials, said McDivitt.

While the outlook for automotive appears positive, demand in other end-markets such as electronics and electrical, and building and construction continue to be challenged, he said.

The ACC Annual Meeting runs through 7 June.

Interview article by Joseph Chang


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