LANXESS AG ’s newest research facility in Ontario is uncovering new uses for an old material.
By Tyler Irving
LANXESS AG is a major producer of butyl rubber, a chemical found in such commodities as car tires and chewing gum. This past June, the global giant officially opened its new research and development centre at the University of Western Ontario Research Park in London, Ont. ACCN spoke to Ralf Ingo Schenkel, vice- president, LANXESS Butyl Rubber Global Research and Development, about what the centre means for the butyl rubber business worldwide.
ACCN What is butyl rubber and where is it used?
RS Butyl rubber is essentially poly(isobutene) with two mol per cent of isoprene in the polymer chain. The small amount of isoprene in the polymer backbone means that it contains roughly two mol per cent of unsaturation. This makes it reactive and allows it to be vulcanized or halogenated.
Butyl rubber has excellent impermeability to air and moisture, which leads directly to the most important application of this polymer: the inner liner in automobile tires. You don’t see it from the outside, but this is the part of the tire that keeps the air inside, providing safety and endurance. The second most important application is in pharmaceutical closure systems. These are the small seals that are used to close vials containing pharmaceutical solutions. The reasons are the same: impermeability against air and moisture and also chemical and biological inertness. In both of these applications, butyl rubber is used as a halogenated polymer, which we call halobutyl.
There is also an interest in niche applications for butyl rubber that is not halogenated. This is a very high quality grade and is used in gum base, which is a key component in chewing gum. It’s one of the few products of the chemical industry that can be eaten.
ACCN What is the history of LANXESS in Canada?
RS LANXESS is the leading manufacturer for rubber polymers. If you look just at butyl rubber, we are the secondlargest manufacturer in the world and the only company that is truly global in that market. We have two existing plants: one in Sarnia, Ont. and the other one in Zwijndrecht, Belgium. Most of the butyl rubber that’s manufactured is used by the tire industry worldwide. In recent years, the tire industry has shifted to Asia and we are currently constructing a new production site for butyl rubber in Singapore.
The history of the Sarnia plant goes back to Polysar, a Canadian company that in the 1980s was one of the largest manufacturers of rubber. Polysar was acquired by Bayer AG in 1990 and in 2005 Bayer spun off most of the chemical and polymer activities into a new company, which is LANXESS.
ACCN What convinced you that LANXESS needed a new global R&D centre for butyl rubber?
RS It sprung from the changes going from Bayer to LANXESS. The rubber business within Bayer was not a core business, so it did not receive much management attention, nor the necessary capital for investment. Within LANXESS, the strategy changed; the butyl rubber business was one of the most important business units and in 2006 a strategic review was conducted. Our questions were: how do we want to operate our innovation, do we need innovation, is innovation even possible with butyl rubber? We saw a lot of innovation potential for butyl and wanted to lead this innovation. We concluded that we needed a world-class R&D organization.
ACCN Why did you decide to put it in Canada and London in particular?
RS We looked at sites all over the world; we could have put it next to our corporate headquarters, which was in Leverkusen, Germany, or our business unit headquarters in Fribourg, Switzerland. But we also considered our manufacturing sites. These have some key know-how and we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that.
Sarnia today is the largest manufacturing site and it’s also the place where most of our know-how is located. The people who know how to work with butyl rubber and who understand the applications work there. So then we tried to find a place that would provide a world-class innovation culture. There are many research and innovation parks in Ontario, but London and Sarnia are just a one-hour drive apart. What we found in London at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) was really excellent. In 2008 we started construction at UWO research park and the building was ready by the end of 2009. Then we set up the labs. The organization still had to be staffed and we did that in 2010. Currently we have 60 people with diverse backgrounds: organic chemists, polymer chemists, chemical engineers and technologists and some other specialists.
ACCN How do you innovate with a material as familiar and established as butyl rubber?
RS The global tire industry today is under a lot of competitive pressure. Oil prices are going up but demand is increasing as people worldwide want to drive cars. The economic growth, especially in China and India, drives research to some extent. And there’s real pressure on tire companies to develop new tires that are more energy-efficient and safer in terms of reduced braking distance. We are developing new materials for tires together with the tire industries.
But that is only the current markets; there are also new areas that have not been exploited. The polymer butyl rubber has many interesting properties such as its biological inertness. This means we can use it for applications in the health sector, maybe even in the human body. We see a lot of future potential.
Ralf Ingo Schenkel, vice-president, LANXESS
Butyl Rubber Global Research and Development
ACCN Can you give some examples of projects you’re working on?
RS As mentioned earlier, in the tire market brominated butyl rubber is currently used inside tires only. We are working on a new application for brominated butyl rubber for the outside tread portion of the tire. If you put a specific amount of brominated butyl rubber into the tread, you can increase traction, so that means you reduce braking or stopping distance significantly. That in turn improves safety, especially on wet roads or under winter conditions. So that’s in the process of being commercialized.
On the medical side, in any health care application, it’s important that systems are clean. Normally, vulcanization requires chemicals like sulphur and zinc oxide, which are not much liked in the health-care industry. We have developed a new polymer that can be cured by using peroxides, which leave no trace behind and represent a very clean pure system.
I would also like to highlight the raw material aspect. For the past 40 or 50 years, butyl rubber has been made from crude oil. What about the next 50 years? How are we going to supply the industries with these polymers if the oil price is too high? That is one of the big challenges for our generation — to shift the raw material base from crude oil to a renewable raw material base. And that’s what we are currently working on, together with the US-based biotech company GEVO. Initially, the feedstock will be based on corn, but in the medium-term the idea is also to use a cellulose product from the forestry industry.
ACCN What challenges do you face in shifting to a bio- based feedstock?
RS Butyl rubber is created by polymerizing isobutene with small amounts of isoprene at roughly –100°C, using cationic polymerization. This kind of polymerization is very sensitive to impurities, even in the parts per million or parts per billion range. Both crude oil based and bio-based feedstocks contain isobutene as the main component, but you’re dealing with a totally different spectrum of impurities. So these are the scientific and technical challenges: to get the impurities under control and make sure that the bio-based feedstock leads to exactly the same polymer as we get from crude oil.
The project is definitely in a very advanced stage already, not only in research but also in engineering. We have demonstrated the feasibility in the laboratory and now the project has moved on in its last stage. We’ll scale it up, likely build a plant and within a few years manufacture butyl rubber based on renewable feedstocks. So that’s one of the first success stories from London that we can now communicate.
Inaugurated earlier this year, the LANXESS Global Research and Development Centre in London, Ont. will search for new applications for butyl rubber, which is currently used mainly in the inner liner of automobile tires. The facility will also assist in the commercialization of a new form of butyl rubber made from renewable feedstocks.
ACCN How important is collaboration with other groups in the research park?
RS Surface Science Western Institute is there and they are one of our partners. We have more than one research project together with them. The research park is an entity of the university and they are a strong partner.
ACCN How important is this centre for the future of your business?
RS Going forward, the butyl rubber business will become even more global. Our business headquarters are now in Singapore. Everything will be international; we will expand the business further, we will expand capacity and we will also diversify. The tire application remains an important application for us, but other market segments will also become more important. We will be larger, more successful, but also more sustainable. Bio-based raw materials are only one component; there’s only a selected number of projects we can communicate at this time. But as an R&D group, we’re involved in all these activities supporting the whole business.
Personally I’m proud of the team we have developed. Within record time they were working together as a high- performing team, as proven by the success stories. This is what I’m most proud of.
Photo Credit: LANXESS
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