Dow Chemical Co.'s Dow Elastomers unit is moving forward on its new plant that will make Nordel-brand EPDM using the firm's proprietary catalyst technology.
The Dow business said it will break ground soon on the facility at a site it has chosen in Plaquemine, La. Dow had announced the project a year ago and released more details on it during an event at the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference, held in Cleveland Oct. 7-10.
The factory is expected to open in 2016, and the new technology will enable the materials supplier to make prod-ucts with high Mooney viscosity, according to the company. No projected cost on the EPDM plant was released, but company officials said it will leverage Dow's $4 billion investment to serve its downstream businesses through increased ethylene and propylene production in the U.S. Gulf Coast.
"The planned Nordel facility will position Dow as the only advanced post-metallocene producer globally, enabling a broader range of EPDM solutions for our customers, while also meeting increasing global demand for our current EPDM applications," said Kim Ann Mink, president of Dow Elastomers' electrical and telecommunications business.
Two major factors drove the site selection, according to Bart Bowser, Dow Elastomers global product and asset director for electrical and telecommunications. First is the shale gas boom, and Dow's investments in that sector that will help drive growth in the company's EPDM business. Secondly, Dow has existing infrastructure at Plaquemine that will benefit the new rubber operation.
"Basically, shale gas is the starting point for the cheap energy," Bowser said. "We take this natural gas, which gets converted into ethane. From there the ethane is cracked, which is what we do, into ethylene. The U.S. shale gas and the abundance of it give us an advantaged position in ethane."
He called the shale gas boom a "blessing" for the nation's manufacturing sector. "I think there's nothing but upside for the petrochemical industry, for the nation, for downstream jobs and for the rejuvenation of the manufacturing base," Bowser said.
Dow's new technology is the third major evolution of the Nordel EPDM line. It started with the traditional Ziegler-Natta process, then moved into a metallocene process in 1997, and the new factory will tout the post-metallocene technology, said David Mitchell, global marketing manager for the Dow Elastomers electrical and telecommunications unit.
The new science takes out much of the back-end washing step used to remove residual catalyst from the rubber, which Mitchell said is very energy and labor intensive. "That's a big advantage for us," he said. "The reason we can do this is we have very efficient catalysts in terms of converting the ethylene and propylene."
With the new catalyst, Dow will be able to do some unique things to the molecule that will allow it to produce a material with high Mooney viscosity.
"Usually the viscous materials can only be made with Ziegler-Natta," he said. "What we're really in the midst of doing is changing the game with our new catalyst and our new technology to be able to make everything from low to high Mooney within this facility."
Mitchell pointed to three applications where the new technology will benefit Dow and its customers. The first is in automotive weatherstripping. Using the metallocene process, the EPDM could be used only to make a dense version; with the new know-how, a sponge product can be manufactured as well.
Dow also will be able to supply the base polymer to compounders making thermoplastic vulcanizates because of the high Mooney capability the new Nordel line will have.
The third sector mentioned was lubrication or oil modification.
"With engine oil, there's actually a polymer that keeps it from breaking down over time," he said. "These are high-viscosity polymers, so with the new technology we'll be able to return to those market spaces as well."
Over the next year, Dow Elastomers will begin to put capabilities in its existing EPDM plant to begin to produce some of the synthetic rubber using the new technology, according to Mitchell. "It's kind of a runway to prepare for the launch of the new plant. It will be enough to seed the market leading up to the full-scale plant."
Bowser said this new technology and upcoming facility are an appropriate way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the development of Nordel. He said the success of Nordel over the decades can be summed up with three fundamental ideas: vision, innovation and staying power.
"We've had that for the last 50 years," he said. "I think with these continuous innovations, we'll have another 50 to go, especially with our new plant."