Commodity plastics are going upscale, thanks to new catalysts that make high-quality polymers from cheap raw materials. Grain-size catalysts made from metals such as titanium cause molecules such as ethylene and octene to link up in long chains. Ordinary catalysts, because they're haphazardly shaped, produce chains of varying lengths and compositions--lower-grade plastics. The new catalyst, with a "sweet spot" of precise dimensions, produces highly regular polymers. Leaders in these so-called single-site catalysts include Dow Chemical, Exxon, Petrofina, and Mitsui Toatsu Chemicals.
New catalysts mean new market battles. On Sept. 8, Dow Chemical Co. announced Affinity, the first branded product made by its new process. Affinity is suited for sealants in flexible packaging and molded goods. Dow says it doesn't strain machinery, a traditional problem with highly regular polymers because they lack the "lubrication" supplied by short chains. With some tweaking, Dow says, its new catalyst should be able to form polymers made with such inexpensive ingredients as butene, hexene, and octene that will vie with expensive engineered polymers such as nylon and polyester.