CLEVELAND—The rubber processing oils market has seen a number of changes during the years, including a shift in the focus of big refineries that aren't likely to supply RPOs anymore and changes in materials brought on by regulations.
But all of those factors still have left a competitive market, and one in which officials of Ergon Inc. believe they are in a good position to fulfill the needs of customers in the tire and rubber product markets, both in North America and worldwide.
"The landscape will continue to change, and we are dedicated to the market," said Mary Ann Abney, Ergon's global technical marketing manager for process oils. "Customers can really come to us if they have questions about what's happening. We know process oils and we know refining, so we can always aid them in whatever they need as we walk them through their applications."
Jackson, Miss.-based Ergon's process oils are marketed under the HyPrene brand and used for such applications as tire oils, plasticizers, extenders, adhesives, defoamers and rubber compounding. It produces RPOs at two of its refineries, with naphthenic products coming out of the Vicksburg, Miss., location and paraffinic ones from the Newell, W.Va., site.
Abney and Nick White, Ergon's vice president of business development, discussed the firm's RPO offerings during the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference, held recently in Cleveland, where Abney also gave a presentation offering insights into the market.
White said rubber process oils generally are among the less-expensive fillers used in rubber formulations, so compounders like to use as much as possible in their offerings. But he added that the landscape of the RPO market has changed significantly over time. Two decades ago, RPOs largely were dominated by aromatic, or DAE, oils. They were used with SBR and BR, provided excellent solvency and were cheap because they were byproducts from the refineries.
"It was kind of a match made in heaven," White said. "A cheap product for the rubber industry and an outlet for oil refineries to get rid of a byproduct."
The only downside—to put it mildly—was the aromatic oils were found to be carcinogenic. The European Union started talks in 2003 that led to a regulation taking effect in 2010 limiting the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons used in the oils, he said.
While that was a big change actually initiated by the rubber industry, White said there have been ongoing evolutions on the refining side that many in the rubber industry may not be aware of that are just as impactful to rubber process oils. One trend is for refineries to continue focusing on producing oils that match properties that are suitable to lubrication applications.
"What we have now are a lot of large refineries—big multinational oil companies—that don't really sell their oils to RPOs or adhesives anymore," he said.
So industries like tire and rubber that need oils to have acceptable solvency and viscosity properties will need to look to specialty refineries for these type RPOs, according to White. "It's a great business for (specialty refineries) to focus on," he said. "It's not only the rubber industry that values these properties, but a number of other industries such as urethane and metalworking fluids."
These changes have been going on for some time, but at a different rate around the world, the Ergon VP said. A lot of the transition already has happened in North America, is just now occurring in Europe and really hasn't started in Asia, as refining chemistries evolve there.