What Are Specialty Chemicals?
A bunch of new people here in the last two weeks. This week would typically be about the news in the specialty chemicals sector, but I realized that I haven’t yet really explained the difference between specialty chemicals and commodity chemicals.
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A specialty chemical in a broad sense is a chemical that fulfills a functional niche application and cannot easily be interchanged with something else. Another way to think of this is to use food as a metaphor. We all know there are specialty ingredients out there, like when you are cooking an Otto Lenghi recipe and he asks you to throw in a head of black garlic or when you are making matzah ball soup and you need something called schmaltz. Specialty chemicals are much the same and you can often make them from commodity ingredients or commodity chemicals.
Commodity Chemicals Are Commodity Ingredients
I like to buy my basic groceries at Trader Joes if I can because 1) they are really cheap and 2) I can’t tell the difference between carrots from Trader Joes and carrots from Whole Foods. Commodity chemicals are much the same in that ethylene or benzene from Mexico is the same as ethylene or benzene from Canada and when you react them together in the right way you can make ethyl benzene and eventually you can get to styrene. Much of the chemical industry is just based on producing ethylene, benzene, propylene, butadiene, carbon monoxide, and more than I have time to name here. These commodity chemicals can be reacted together to form other commodity chemicals. Even polymerizing them together can yield commodity polymers/chemicals like polyethylene. Typically when the reaction is very predictable i.e. polymerization of ethylene yields polyethylene you have a commodity, but when there is a possibility of multiple reaction pathways then you are moving towards specialty chemical territory.
An example of a specialty chemical (will use specialty chemicals to refer to specialty polymers too) is an acrylic resin emulsion. BASF or Dow might sell various resin emulsions to Sherwin-Williams and each resin emulsion might have a specific purpose or function when mixed into a paint formulation. The science behind making acrylic resin emulsions is dependent on what is known as an emulsion polymerization, but what emulsion polymerizations allow chemists to do is mix and match different monomers together during polymerization in water.
Emulsion polymerizations have the benefit of a few things, but acrylics generally allow reactions with other types of acrylics. I alluded to some fluorinated acrylics last week degrading into PFAS made by Chemours. As a polymer chemist you might react methyl methacrylate into an acrylic resin to provide rigidity, but then you might throw in some butyl acrylate to provide more flexibility, perhaps a bit of acrylic acid to keep the emulsion stable or a fluorinated acrylic to provide the paint with some more water resistance.
The specialty chemicals industry is where the majority of polymer chemists have jobs. In order to make products that serve a particular function such as holding your shoes, a car or wind turbine blade together a polymer chemist had to figure it out before it went into production. The same is true for brake pads that help you stop, the paint that protects your house, and the silicone baby bottles that are used to feed and countless other everyday items the majority of us never think about.
The job posting that GAF is sponsoring in this newsletter, for a polyisocyanurate foam chemist, is in the specialty chemical industry. Polyiso is really a mixture of smaller polymers coming together to do a cascade of reactions that yield a foam and a synthetic polymer chemist might be trying to get certain types of reactions to happen over others or try and incorporate new raw materials to bring out new properties such as switching to blowing agents with low global warming potential.
This concept of developing products for the specialty chemical industry is a topic that I’ll be writing about in the next few months periodically. I’m going to attempt to do it once a month, much in the way that I attempt to write about careers in chemistry once a month. My goal is to help students and early career scientists to build minimum viable products that they can pitch to the people who have the money.