Q&A – Opportunities in the Bio-Based Resin Market

January 9, 2014

Bob Moffit, product manager at Ashland Performance Materials

“While the bio-resin market hasn’t taken off yet, there’s no doubt that it’s active and important,” says Bob Moffit, product manager at Ashland Performance Materials in Dublin, Ohio. Moffit cares about the composites industry and has worked hard during his career to help it grow. Ashland is a global leader in unsaturated polyester resins and epoxy vinyl ester resins. The company developed its first bio-based resin under the Envirez™ brand more than a decade ago for the company John Deere.

One of Moffit’s focus areas is green composites. He is chair of ACMA’s Green Composites Council, one of the 12 Composites Growth Initiatives (CGIs). He has also led educational sessions at association events to discuss opportunities in the bio-based resin market. For more information on the Green Composites Council or any of the other CGIs, contact Andrew Huber.

CM Interviews recently spoke with Moffit about the dynamics of that market, and how the industry can better position itself for growth. Read the full article in the January/February issue of CM. Don’t get CM? To receive your free subscription, just click here.

How has the bio-based resin market changed in the last few years?

Early on, bio-based resins generated a lot of publicity. They were new and fun to talk about, and Ashland received a lot of interest from fabricators that wanted to try “the soy resin,” as they called it. But that particular resin wasn’t really right for every processing application. Ashland monitored fabricators’ interest and began working on bio-based chemistries that would support these applications. Then, in the mid-to-late 2000s, more bio-based materials started hitting the market, including ones from DuPont Tate & Lyle, Archer Daniels Midland and others. That gave us and other resin companies more tools to work with and kept the interest up, in addition to allowing us to make products that fit different applications.

What’s driving the demand for green composites today?

There’s a lot of growth opportunities for composites, and much of that is driven through an increased overall interest in sustainable building practices. I’m working with the Green Building Council on a local and national level on issues that impact composite fabricators. What I’ve noticed is that many applications for bio-based materials are being driven by the push toward energy efficiency and low emissions. There’s also a big movement toward product transparency – talking about material ingredients and the effort to reduce higher-toxicity components. The Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council is helping drive demand for the bio-based market. It is driving builders, architects, designers and others to search out lower-impact products and building methods, which creates opportunities for alternative materials. Composites overall are well positioned to meet the needs of green builders, because of the inherent characteristics of durability, low-weight, design flexibility and low thermal conductivity.

Today, companies that embrace bio-based resins have market drivers that support this choice. Fabricators move to bio-based resins because their customers are engaged and supportive. Green composites allow companies to differentiate themselves, and they get to connect with a certain segment of their customer-base that make decisions based on sustainability issues.

If we were talking five years from now about healthy growth in the bio-based resin market, what would have happened in that span? How can the market take off?

It will be hard for it to take off unless the cost structure changes. There needs to be more cost neutrality versus petroleum-based products. The good news is that we’re not that far away. Typically, a bio-based resin costs about 10 percent more than a petroleum-based resin, and that’s not a big difference to overcome. Actually, there was a time around the end of 2007 when we were seeing bio-containing resins that were lower in cost than petroleum-based equivalents. It wasn’t a long time, but it was there, and it will happen again. When it does, I think the industry as a whole will be in a better position because we’re more prepared and educated to offer these types of alternative products than we were back then.

Aside from costing slightly more, there’s a supply-chain and production issue. Today, availability of bio-based raw materials is much lower than petroleum-based raw materials, and some companies offer bio-based products only in short campaigns. If people can’t have confidence in the supply chain, not much is going to move beyond lab testing.

What can the industry do to help customers and prospects learn more about green composites?

Communication and education is the key. Ashland developed the educational web site CompositeBuild.com because of our work in bio-based composites. We knew we had a leadership position in green resin chemistry, and we wanted to understand the LEED market better. We sat down with architects, LEED consultants and designers and asked if they’d be interested in green building materials that contained bio-based resins. The response was, “That’s interesting … but what’s a composite?” Ashland realized that growth in the composites industry was less about pushing bio-based materials and more about helping to educate the design/build community and getting them to understand the benefits of composites overall. The site helps people understand what composites are, what the sustainability story is related to composites, and where they’re being used and why. There’s also a search portal that enables people to find different composite building products and then link to the web sites of fabricators and distributors of those materials. Ashland is trying to raise awareness of the industry at-large, and connect end users in the building industry to composite fabricators.

Also, the composites industry is trying new ways to educate the marketplace. The ACMA Architectural Division will be supporting outreach and awareness of composites, including green composites, to the architectural community by coordinating a composites pavilion at the AIA Architectural show, June 2014 in Chicago. More than 20 composite fabricators will be showcasing composite building materials and applications at the show. This is a first-ever composites pavilion at a major builders show, and I’m excited to see what happens.

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