Specialty Chemicals Enable Lower Carbon Emissions

Supply Chain Pain

The dominant news in the specialty chemicals arena from what I hear are still supply chain shortages and hurricane Ida hitting Louisiana didn’t make things any better. As of this writing there are still refineries offline due to power shortages. Most chemical operations seem to be back up and running though and I hope that purchasers and supply chain professionals built up some inventory prior to the storm. ICIS monitors the situation and you can see their latest update here.

When it comes to getting starting materials, laboratory supplies, and finished goods shipped out to customers shipping these goods is the last step in the process. ICIS recently published a story that shipping containers are in short supply and moving goods from China to the US is still a big issue. Prices on containers from China to the US are about $20,000 for a 40 foot container and at this time last year it was at $4,500. This represents a 344% increase in price year over year and prices are expected to keep climbing. Companies that have been operating on a model of undercutting their competitors by importing cheap goods from SE Asia and China must be feeling significant margin pressure if they have not already passed their costs onto the consumer.

All of these issues mean raw material prices go up or raw materials just become unavailable. When you are working in a production environment and your first and secondary suppliers can’t meet your demand the next obvious place to turn to is anyone as soon as you can qualify the raw materials. If you have to import these raw materials at a higher price the only logical thing to do is to pass the costs on to your consumers.

Smells like inflation to me.

Marine Coatings

Coatings World had an interesting story about how biofouling is contributing to excess emissions from the shipping industry by creating drag on container ships.

a navy vessel with 10% barnacle fouling requires 36% more power to maintain the same speed. Simplified, hard fouling can significantly increase the fuel consumption of a vessel, and consequently its emissions.

A robust anti-fouling coating can reduce attachment of barnacles and make container ships more efficient (less emissions) and help minimize transfer of invasive marine species. The main principle of the article was a company by the name of I-Tech and they developed a product called Selektope, which they are purporting to be an anti-fouling coating. This means specialty paint can help reduce GHG emissions and be part of the solution to help save the world. Whoever said paint drying was boring didn’t know much about paint.

The issue I have with this story is that it reads like a big advertisement when you get to the end. I suppose I can be guilty of a narrow focus too when I’m writing something, but in a trade magazine which specializes in coatings I find it strange that they do not mention any other large coatings company and their anti-fouling products. I’ll try to be better in the future, but I sometimes suspect that these articles are written by the company in question. I suspect because I’ve been asked to write these things for trade publications in my own industry (well usually, it’s marketing who outsources it to a marketing company who then writes something awful and then I have to rewrite it). Most large coating companies have anti marine fouling coatings if you need one.

Composite Tapes

The other cool story I saw was the use of thermoplastic tape for composites in Composites World. Making composites is definitely more of a chemical engineering and materials science oriented profession, but making the adhesives in the tapes, composite resins, curing recommendations, and adhesion promoters is all chemistry. Thermoplastic tapes are used to help hold down fibers during automated fiber placement (AFP) via another process called automated tape laying.

Most composites like boat hulls, wind turbine blades, and formula 1 racing parts are usually layers of woven glass/carbon fiber held together by an epoxy, polyurethane, or phenolic resin. Laying the fibers can be labor intensive, which is why many composite manufacturers have moved towards automated fiber placement and to hold those fibers in place they use tape, which can also be labor intensive to apply so there is also automated tape placement. The tapes can eventually become part of the composite so they are often using niche high performance polymers such as: Polyether ether ketone (PEEK), Polyimides (also, see Zymergen story), and Polyaryl ether ketone (PAEK) to name a few.

The concept of automation around composite is to try and drive down the costs. The lower the costs for production of composites the easier it is to hit price parity with incumbent materials so they can be used in larger volume applications. We use steel and aluminum right now for automobile frames, but if we want more efficiency out of our vehicles such as better gas mileage or increased range for our EVs then composites are an important route to pursue.

You can see some manufacturing of a BMW i3 below, but the i3 is also slated to be discontinued. Will be interesting to see if BMW keeps their composite manufacturing infrastructure in place for theirnext-gen EVs the iX1 and the i4.