Synthetic Rubber: US market; Trade war is not the sector’s waterloo

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The US-China trade war is expected to leave many industries wounded. Nevertheless, the US synthetic rubber sector has remained unscathed and has stayed on a growth path, says Angelica Buan in this report.

It could have been a winter of doom for the US synthetic rubber industry when in September last year, China, in the thick of a trade spat with the US, announced that it would also be levying 10% duties on synthetic rubber. The duties were imposed on halogen butyl and neoprene rubbers and tyre products. This was after the US laid out its plan of levying a round of tariffs on synthetic rubber feedstock from China.

The US and China have historically been strong trading partners. According to a 2018 data from the US China Business Council, US exports to China were increasing, growing by 86% to more than US$127 billion over the last decade against only a 21% increase in exports to the rest of the world.

China has also been the US’s third largest market, after the UK and Canada. Exports for plastics and rubber to China amounted to US$6.4 billion in 2017, citing a data of World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS).

Despite speculations of reversed growth for US-based synthetic rubber players, the upside is that the ongoing row has imparted lessons on resiliency and diversification.

Odds not against the synthetic rubber sector

The global synthetic rubber market is expected to cross US$45 billion by 2023, according to a Market Research Engine report. The growth is attributed to its increasing utilisation in heavy industries like tyres, which is expected to reach US$304 billion over the same period, according to a 2018 tyre forecast report by Techsci Research.

In the US, despite the uncertainty looming over the synthetic rubber sector, it is business as usual for companies based there and those that are keeping their sails up and continuing to expand in stormy seas.

Just to cite a few recent movements in the industry, California-sited elastomers supplier RDAbbott has concluded a deal with North Carolinabased manufacturer of adhesives, coatings, motion management devices, and sensing technologies, Lord Corporation to expand its distribution of Lord adhesives and coatings to Canada. Some key applications of adhesives and coatings include solid tyre vehicles, rubber track crawlers, rubber tank linings, functional components for the automotive industry, and custom rubber moulding for the oil, gas, and energy industries.

This new agreement will be facilitated and managed locally by RDAbbott’s newly established division, RDAbbott Canada, in Ontario. For over 60 years, RDAbbott has partnered with Lord in rubber-tosubstrate bonding innovations. Recently, RDAbbott also worked with Lord on innovations that include bonding techniques for addition-cured polymers, liquid silicone rubber, plastics, and other substrates.

In a related development, RDAbbott is also distributing high performance elastomer (HPE) products from Netherlands-headquartered synthetic rubber company Arlanxeo across the US. From this year, the US company will carry Arlanxeo’s brands of Keltan (EPDM), Baypren (CR), Krynac and Perbunan (NBRs), Therban (HNBR), Levapren and Levamelt (EVMs). Arlanxeo’s HPE products are suitable for a wide range of industrial applications, including modifiers for plastic and adhesive raw materials, in gas and oil exploration and production, and in functional components for the automotive and cable industries.

US synthetic rubber manufacturer Lion Elastomers has also recently hitched a distribution pact with Ohio-based TL Squire & Co for reselling its cold styrene butadiene rubber and EPDM brands Royalene and Royaltherm to selected accounts.

Isoprene development on a roll

Isoprene rubber (IR) is dubbed as natural rubber’s synthetic alter ego. Thus, the US, with its large tyre and non-tyre industries, is pursuing commercialisation of isoprene.

Globally, isoprene is anticipated to corner nearly US$4 billion of the synthetic rubber market by 2025, according to a Zion Market Research report.

The North American isoprene market is predicted to rise significantly over the period from 2018, with the US and Canada driving the growth at the back of their robust automotive and medical industries.

The importance of isoprene in these high ticket industries cannot be negated. The largest tyre maker in the world, Bridgestone, has in 2017 led in developing synthetic IR through a molecular structure control utilising a new polymerisation catalyst. The proprietary catalyst, called Gadolinium (Gd), features a structure designed to enable it to be utilised to control IR molecular structure at temperatures above 40°C, the range commonly used in manufacturing processes.

According to Bridgestone, the newly synthesised IR has the potential to contribute to the development of next-generation rubber with performance surpassing that of NR. Moreover, the IR can be created using isoprene derived from renewable biomass and is therefore anticipated to be a sustainable material.

The Tokyo-headquartered tyre maker, through its operations in the US, Bridgestone Americas, plans to further the development of IR to practical application and determine how to secure a stable supply of isoprene with the aim of realising practical application in the 2020s.

Meanwhile, Colorado-based chemicals company Gevo has recently unveiled its breakthrough development of renewable isoprene.

The proprietary chemical-based catalytic process converts low-value fusel oils – a mixture of alcohols that are byproducts from fermentation processes such as ethanol production – into renewable isoprene.

This new development is anticipated to provide commercially viable isoprene that is renewable, lowcarbon, and low-cost. Gevo added that fermentation processes were always deemed to be too expensive to make isoprene directly, and its technology can become a game changer.

Making ‘peace’ in the US rubber sector with plants

Ongoing research to fine tune the guayule plant to become a viable rubber alternative has put the US on the map of renewable materials frontrunners.

Guayule is a woody desert shrub cultivated in the south western US, and it has been tapped as a source of natural rubber latex, organic resins, and high-energy biofuel feedstock.

In a latest development, a team of scientists has come up with an improved guayule for rubber production. The project, led by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Colleen McMahan and her colleagues: molecular biologists Grisel Ponciano, Niu Dong, and Dante Placido and technician Trinh Huynh, in Albany, California, has commenced following an agreement between the ARS Bioproducts Research Unit and Bridgestone Americas in 2013 to evaluate the genetically modified guayule.

Improvement work on guayule is ongoing, and the team aims to produce a guayule variety that is drought and disease-resistant.

Previously, in 2016, ARS delivered over 3,000 experimental guayule plants to Bridgestone Americas in Eloy for field testing.

Other guayule developments by various companies have been carried out over time, including US guayule producer PanAridus, to make guayule rubber production commercially feasible. As well, global tyre makers Ford, Pirelli, Cooper and chemical company Eni Versalis are also working on the premise of producing green tyres.

Arizona-based biomaterials company Yulex has also embarked on a project on improving the guayule crop through genomic technologies and for commercial production.

Ohio State University (OSU) researchers, led by Professor Katrina Cornish, on route to commercialising guayule in non-tyre applications, have pioneered the first medical glove that is hypoallergenic and can block radiation.

The Radiation Attenuation (RA) medical glove will eliminate the need for medical professionals working with radiation to double-glove to follow the federal requirement that they protect against both blood-borne pathogens and radiation, Cornish intoned.

The RA medical glove is made from guayule-based rubber and was developed in partnership with EnergyEne Inc, a Wooster-based start-up. Cornish says the firm is expecting to put the glove out in the market within two years after securing FDA approval and commercial licencing. The team is also working on producing condoms and weather balloons from guayule rubber, giving Asian producers that use natural rubber for these products a run for their money.

Flower power in Asia to counter guayule

Notwithstanding, jumping on the bandwagon, the quest for a rubber latex alternative has crossed over to China. Shandong-headquartered tyre maker Linglong is funding research into dandelion rubber, another source of natural rubber.

Dandelion rubber, also known as the Russian dandelion, is being tapped to meet the growing demand for rubber. The market for dandelion is shaping up as demand is increasing due to the plants versatile potential for a wide range of application, including in the cosmetics, food and beverage and medical industries.

Dandelion is abundant in source and is available globally. Thus, many companies including global tyre makers Continental, Bridgestone, Cooper and Goodyear Tire & Company are launching R&D efforts into dandelion rubber.

Linglong, considering dandelion rubber as the “ new strategic raw material of natural rubber in the 21st century”, is investing US$450 million to help set up a company in China dedicated to developing the new polymer.

The new company, Linglong Dandelion Science and Technology Development Co, is aiming to contribute to the development of China’s dandelion rubber industry.

In 2017, China heralded a significant progress it made on dandelion rubber development. The Institute of Genetics and Development Biology under the Chinese Academy of Science shared that it has charted a highquality genome sequence that includes over 46,000 genes of the Russian dandelion.

Linglong reasons that China’s natural rubber demand requires it to import over 80% of the commodity. Therefore, boosting the development and application of dandelion rubber could reduce China’s imports of synthetic rubber, while at the same time help improve the environment.

In this regard, the US and China share a common ground for renewable options to synthetic rubber. For all we know, their discoveries will lead to breakthroughs and collaborations that could finally settle the dust between these two economic giants.