ROME—As the petrochemicals arm of Italian oil and gas giant Eni S.p.A., Versalis is focusing on developing new technologies to improve its rubber portfolio, upping the ante in the tire-rubber industry and stepping into the largely-unexplored waters of bio-rubber production.
Versalis expects to launch a joint rubber product with EVE Rubber and Ecombine—both owned by the Chinese machinery manufacturer Mesnac—in 2017, which it expects to offer very high tire performance features.
“This is a technology platform that will use Versalis' elastomer production know-how and EVE's technology, which allow us to wet-mix the elastomers with fillers while still in solution,” said Sergio Lombardini, director of research, technology and engineering of Versalis.
In what may seem like a very simple solution, wet-mixing delivers compounds with “incredible performances compared with dry compounds,” according to Lombardini.
That is because it allows a much more “intimate” mixing in the compound to stop filler-with-filler interaction and allow only filler-elastomer interaction.
The solution, according to the Versalis director, gives a huge improvement to the tire performance in both rolling resistance and grip.
The three companies announced their joint effort in July, saying it would lead to “a breakthrough generation of tires,” based on Versalis' proprietary solution styrene butadiene rubber and butadiene rubber technologies.
The partners are now making these compounds on a pilot scale, with a pilot unit in China and one at the Versalis site in Ravenna, Italy.
“In the meantime, we are engineering two elastomer modifying plants for the combined technology for the Qingdao site, which is owned by Ecombine, and an additional solvent-treatment recycling unit, which is needed to make this combined technology work,” Lombardini said.
Versalis, continued Lombardini, already has delivered one of these two plant engineering designs, and construction work has started.
“The units we are delivering for the site are solution SBR and polybutadiene, modified technologies and the solvent-treatment unit,” he said.
The Qingdao plant, which Lombardini described as “a small complex but the first in the world,” is to launch in 2017, with the overall capacity of 130 kiloton per year (ktpa).
On the business side of the partnership, Versalis intends to commercialize this technology for its key tire-producing customers.
While the Chinese partners will sell the product in the already-large and growing Chinese market, Versalis believes that it will have a major work to do to prove the product to its “more established customers.”