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Evonik sees growth for PA 12 materials


Photo by Caroline Seidel Adhesive bonded hybrid structures in a car axis from Evonik shown at Fakuma 2018.

Friedrichshafen, Germany — Evonik Industries AG is progressing well with a €400m plan to increase production of polyamide 12 (PA 12) at its manufacturing site in Marl, Germany by 50%, with start-up scheduled in just over two years.

"We have asked engineering companies for bids now, and the plan is to start up the plant at the beginning of 2021," Ralf Duessel, general manager high-performance polymers, said in an interview at Fakuma.

The 50% increase in capacity will include increases in monomer production as well as polymerisation and compounding capabilities at the site.

In February, Evonik already raised production of its Vestosint-branded powder materials in Marl by 50%. But the recent investment, according to Duessel, will cover a larger scope that will include its Vistamid range of PA 12 polymers.

According to Duessel, who took over the role eight months ago, the high-performance material has a steady, solid growth prospect, with increasing applications in additive manufacturing.

"We have been involved in 3D printing for a long time, and we have a good knowledge of how polymers behave. Over the years, we have seen volumes increasing," the Evonik official said.

The Essen, Germany-based specialty chemical company sees its products particularly suited for laser sintering and multijet fusion technologies. In this process, Evonik has established long-term partners including HP and Munich-based additive manufacturing pioneer EOS GmbH.

According to Duessel, the clear material has significant advantages in 3D printing over other polymers.

The material, particularly in laser sintering, has certain features including crystallinity that can give a broad operation window.

"It doesn't melt, and you can create sharp contours. It also has a wide range of features that can be optimised for different applications," Duessel said.

Despite the increasing demand, 3D printing has remained fairly limited to prototyping and small-scale manufacturing.

"We are trying to get there, to make the process fast and more efficient with lower costs," Duessel added.

Evonik is supporting so-called 3D printing "ecosystems," where a range of players, including material suppliers, hardware, software and designing experts, collaborate to advance the technology.

"Engineers need to design differently and think differently. [Unlike injection moulding], they are not putting parts together. They need to design differently, and we are working with universities and startups in that area," he said.

Apart from the increasing demand in additive manufacturing, PA 12 continues to grow in its traditional markets, too.

With resistance to chemicals and a good temperature range between -40 to 80° C, the material is well-suited for fluid transfer applications, particularly in the automotive industry.

The polymer is also finding increasing levels of use in the oil and gas industry, replacing metal pipe.

"For pipes, PA 12 is simply better. It's lighter, and it can be welded when you're installing it. We have a nice long gas pipeline that has just been installed using the material," he said.

In cars, the high impact resistance makes it a key material for fuel lines. And as the car industry transitions from combustion engines to electric motors, Evonik sees new application opportunities. For example, cooling lines used for the thermal management of batteries can be made with PA 12, according Duessel.

"We already sell a significant amount to that [EV] market," he added.

At Fakuma, Evonik also displays its well-established Plexiglass-branded polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) materials, despite being in the process of carving out the business.

According to Duessel, the sale of the methyl methacrylates (MMA)and PMMA business, originally announced in March, is going well, and a long-list has been created.

The methacrylates business, in spite of its sales of roughly €1.5bn, has been defined as outside the company's growth area.

This, according to Duessel, is because of the cyclical nature of the business, its cash-intensiveness as well as the fact that MMAs are standard chemicals, as opposed to specialty chemicals that Evonik pursues.

Evonik's overall MMA and PMMA production capacities are roughly 600 and 400 kilotonnes per annum, respectively.

With plants in Germany, the United States and China, covering three large continents, Duessel believes the operation is a "very attractive business."

On top of that, Evonik has, over the past 10 years, developed a propriety new production process that it is currently employing at its pilot plant in Germany.

"To scale up, a significant capex amount is needed, and Evonik is not prepared to make the investment at this point. Finding a new investor can help with the scaling up of the technology, too," he said.