BRUSSELS—Solvay is ramping up its ability to supply and develop products for the tire industry as part of a two-year expansion that will see it hike overall silica production capacity by 50 percent.
The program, which includes plant start-ups in Poland and Korea, is in response to growing demand in energy-saving tires worldwide, said An Nuyttens, president of the group's silica global business unit.
These activities, said Nuyttens, are being driven by automotive original equipment manufacturers who are under pressure from regulators to reduce the carbon footprint of their vehicles, and by labeling rules which require tire rolling-resistance to be clearly displayed to consumers.
“Regulation is important in the market. If you look, for example, at Brazil, in 2014 tire labeling came into force and G-rated tires are to be banned from 2016. That means that labeled tires will have more silica so we see that driving growth in the market.
“We also have to look at the sustainability picture. We need to go to a more sustainable industry. Silica has a clear advantage: it is made in a more sustainable way compared to carbon black.”
Solvay currently has nine silica production sites across the world: three in Europe, the newest in Poland, one close to Lyon, France and one in Italy.
In North America, the group operates a facility in Chicago, while its Brazil facility close to Sao Paolo is the more important of its two plants in Latin America, the other being in Venezuela.
In July, Solvay officially launched production of highly dispersible silica at its new 85 kilotons per year plant in Wloclawek, Poland—built to meet growing demand in central and Eastern Europe.
“A big part of our customer [base] is present in Eastern Europe and Russia,” said Nuyttens, who put growth in the region at mid-single-digit, expect for Russia where there are economic drivers going against the market.
According to Nuyttens, the Polish plant houses Solvay's newest production technologies and will manufacture a wide range of silicas including its newest, differentiated offerings for the tire industry.
Output will include Efficium, which was launched in February. Based on patented technology for functionalizing the silica to improve miscibility, it is said to offer higher productivity and flexibility in manufacturing passenger-car and truck tires.
“Efficium gives our customers a wider operating window,” Nuyttens explained. “It gives a lower Mooney viscosity of the mix and lower temperature sensitivity, better dimensional stability during extrusion and extends the storage life of the uncured rubber.
“We have also had feedback from customers that it saves up to 30 percent in energy during production of the rubber.”
Of the company's three silica plants is Asia: two are in China, close to Qingdao, and one in Incheon, South Korea. Solvay is to bring a second Korean plant on stream in 2016, which will eventually take over much of the current capacity of the Incheon site. The new 80-ktpa HDS plant in Gunsan is intended to address growing demand in Asia for energy-saving tires and to develop new grades.
“We have decided to have all our innovation grades in Korea because Korea is an excellent (location) for protection of IP rights and it is a good base,” Nuyttens said.
“They have highly educated people and we can put our new technology in there,” she added. “This plant will also produce our new grades and new type of silica, one of which is Efficium.”
Going forward, Nuyttens believes that the pace of innovation is key to success in the tire market.
“There needs to be better tires, with improved fuel-saving, processing, energy saving. The whole challenge will be how can we accelerate that innovation and bring it into the tires,” she said.
“Tires are a safety product so there needs to be a lot of testing over a long period of time. So if there is to be sustainability and innovation there needs to be an acceleration of that and this is what we are working on with our customers.”