LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Techniques such as high-throughput catalyst research, enhanced analytical science and 3D imaging are accelerating innovation in the elastomer industry, according to the keynote speaker at the International Elastomer Conference in Louisville.
"When you look at the general perception of elastomers, inside and outside of the industry, people ask, 'Why innovate in rubber? It's been around for 150 years!'" said Florian Schattenmann, vice president for performance materials and coatings R&D at the Dow Chemical Co., in his Oct. 9 speech.
However, global population growth is driving the need for a new generation of elastomers, according to Schattenmann.
With that growth, he said, comes a burgeoning middle class in China and other developing countries and a growing need for sustainability.
"We have more and more people, but not more resources," he said.
Auto makers in particular are feeling the pressure to put sustainable, long-lasting and fuel-saving technologies in their vehicles while maintaining or exceeding their traditional standards of performance, according to Schattenmann.
"You expect the new generation of the BMW 5 series to be better than the last," he said.
At Dow, high-throughput research is allowing the company to develop new technologies faster to meet demand.
Current developments build on breakthroughs in polyolefin polymerization in the 1990s, when metallocene catalysts were first used, he said.
The advanced molecular catalysts Dow developed for EPDM production are extremely efficient, with tailored polymer structure designs and balanced processing and physical properties, Schattenmann said.
The efficiency of the catalysts in EPDM production have reduced energy use by 20 to 25 percent, ozone depletion by 69 percent, smog by 45 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 39 percent.
Meanwhile, enhanced analytical science at Dow is ensuring both the quality of raw materials and the performance of finished goods, according to Schattenmann.
"We have to find new methods to find out exactly what happened," he said. Dow has three high-resolution telescopes—one with a resolution of 0.068 nanometers—to efficiently analyze the molecular structure of materials.
Enhanced analytical science has led to many innovations at Dow, such as the development of moldable optical silicones that allow the creation of new LED lighting for cars, according to Schattenmann. Early on, however, one set of silicone LED panels came out slightly yellow, when LED panels must be clear.
Analysis traced back the problem to a hose used in the factory of one of Dow's suppliers, which leaked a minute amount of impurities into the silicones, he said.
The LED technology allows vehicles to have headlamps that are always on high-beam without blinding other drivers, according to Schattenmann. Mercedes is already using this technology in Europe, he said, but it can't distribute it in the U.S. because of a Nixon-era regulation that requires cars to have both high- and low-beam lights.
Mercedes and Dow are talking to lawmakers in Washington to get the regulation changed, he said.
3D printing with liquid silicone rubber is also allowing Dow to accelerate product design and prototype development, according to Schattenmann. An innovative LSR technology allows 3D printing of high-performance silicone rubber parts for functional assembly testing.
The 3D technology allows infinite customization of parts, according to Schattenmann. However, it is too expensive to use in ordinary, high-volume parts production, and is likely to remain so for some time.