Wednesday, 2 February 2011

BASF scales up eco-polymer, finally

BASF this week starts up added capacity for Ecoflex biodegradable polymer at its main Ludwigshafen site in Germany. It is raising output from 14,000 to 74,000 tonnes/year, which it says should meet market demands to 2020, assuming 20%/year growth as BASF is doing.

The expanded Ecoflex plant
I thought it might be interesting to look back over the development of this innovation, and indeed it was. It shows just how long - over a decade - chemical companies have to persevere to get new products into the market, especially when they are up against established, high-volume products such as polyethylene.

Ecoflex has the properties of conventional polyethylene but is fully biodegradable under industrial composting conditions. It is thus competing purely on a green agenda, but with higher price given the new technology and much lower economies of scale.

BASF first started selling Ecoflex over 10 years ago, from a small 8,000 tonne/year plant in Ludwigshafen. This capacity increased to the current 14,000 tonnes/year after an additional plant was built in Schwarzheide in 2006. The announcement for the plant that has just been built was made in April 2008.

At the same time as it added new base capacity, BASF is also upping compounding capacity for its Ecovio offering - which is a blend of Ecoflex - based on petrochemical feedstocks - and a polylactic acid polymer, derived from corn starch. This, it says, is also doing well, on the back of its 75% or so renewable bio-based content.

Doubtless ever-growing concerns over the green agenda, renewable feedstocks and recycling will spur further interest in the material - but I wonder how much BASF has committed to developing Ecoflex and the market for it over the past 10 years - just how long is the pay-back period, and how many other companies without BASF's resources can stay the course?

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