After Major Downturn, Global Demand for Polycarbonate Growing Again, Says IHS Chemical Report
Nearly unbreakable, polycarbonate is also heat resistant, making it ideal for automotive parts and electrical components
After demonstrating phenomenal growth during the 1990s due to its use in the production of CDs and DVDs, polycarbonate, a high-performance engineering resin, saw its demand fall in 2009 and rebound in 2010, but diversification to other uses, such as electronics, drove global growth for the polymer by around three percent in 2011, according to a new IHS Chemical global market study from IHS (NYSE: IHS), the leading global source of information and analysis.
The report, the IHS Chemical 2012 World Polycarbonate and ABS Analysis (formerly from CMAI), covers historical developments and future projections for supply, demand, capacity and trade in the global polycarbonate and ABS markets for 2006 to 2016. According to the study, world demand for polycarbonate is expected to grow at an average rate of slightly less than five percent during the next five years, reaching around 4.5 million metric tons by the end of 2016. U.S. demand for the product was estimated at 360 thousand metric tons in 2011.
”Following a drop in demand for polycarbonate during the recession, we are seeing demand growth that is largely being driven by automotive, appliance and electronics applications,” said Adrian Beale, director of global engineering plastics at IHS Chemical and one of the authors of the report. “Electrical and electronic applications are the largest end-use for polycarbonates, accounting for around one-fifth of global demand at around 720 thousand metric tons in 2011. The key driver for this market will be the increased use of consumer electronics, such as tablet devices, flat screen televisions, mobile phones and office equipment, including printers.”
Electronics, particularly consumer electronics, accounted for 20 percent of end-use of polycarbonates in 2011; while the sheet and film sector, which primarily serves the construction industry, represented 18 percent; optical media (CDs/DVDs) at 18 percent; and appliances and automotive (non-window usage) at 12 percent, apiece. Other uses include auto glazing, medical equipment and instruments, sports, safety and recreational equipment, and packaging.
Beale said the trend toward larger TVs is contributing to this demand. “Polycarbonates are light, heat-resistant, very strong, and they have excellent optical qualities. As the trend toward larger TVs continues, polycarbonate is increasingly preferred over acrylic sheet for backlight diffusers in these larger TVs, since greater dimensional stability is required, which cannot be offered by acrylic sheet, especially at the high temperatures generated in the backlight unit. Any flex in these large, thin sheets produces inconsistent brightness of the TV picture and so, in TVs with screens larger than 42 inches, polycarbonate is increasingly preferred.
These new applications for the polymer are an important factor for an industry that can no longer rely on optical media for the long-term growth of the business. Increasingly, optical media applications are being superseded by other technologies, such as mp3 and mp4 files, as higher internet bandwidth allows consumers to download music and movies rather than buying the physical polycarbonate disc.
According to the IHS Chemical study, global demand for polycarbonate is expected to grow at an average annual rate of around five percent during the next five years, reaching around 4.5 million metric tons by the end of 2016. The fastest growth will be in the automotive glazing sector, albeit from a very low base. Beale noted that auto industry glazing has the potential to be a “game-changer” for the polycarbonate industry due to the sheer scale of the potential demand for car windshields, windows and sun and moon roofs, which are currently constructed mainly from glass.
Said Beale, “Polycarbonate has almost entirely replaced glass for headlights and taillights in automobiles and is making inroads into sun and moon roof manufacture, but if the automotive industry transitions to using this plastic to replace window glass, then it would be a game-changer for the polycarbonate industry as the demand growth would be phenomenal. Polycarbonate enables auto manufacturers to lower vehicle weight, which is important for the energy efficiency and environmental impact of vehicles, in addition to new innovative designs made possible by use of this material instead of glass.
Polycarbonate has a unique combination of properties, which make it especially suitable for many applications. It has very high impact strength and is almost unbreakable. Toughness, combined with transparency, high-temperature resistance and light weight, makes polycarbonate a perfect candidate for demanding transparent applications where safety is required. And its ability to withstand high-temperature sterilization makes it suitable for medical equipment and instruments.
Despite its many uses, polycarbonate has not avoided controversy, particularly in the use of beverage packaging. Packaging demand for polycarbonate has taken a major hit recently from the concern surrounding bisphenol A (BPA) leaching out of polycarbonate baby bottles when heated. That concern has spread to other forms of polycarbonate packaging, such as sports bottles and cups, and even water-cooler bottles. Negative publicity has had a detrimental impact on the packaging sector worldwide, especially with the introduction of legislation banning the use of polycarbonate in containers intended for children, but also due to pre-emptive actions by producers and retailers.
Polycarbonate supply is currently spread relatively evenly around the world amongst the four major regions of North America, Europe, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. However, Northeast Asia, which is already the largest producing region, is also growing the most rapidly in terms of capacity additions and so will ultimately dominate all other regions in terms of supply. “One of the key reasons for this is that so many of the world’s consumer durable goods are produced in Northeast Asia, that it just makes sense for companies to build the polycarbonate production facilities close by,” added Beale
Several companies produce polycarbonate globally, but two companies, Bayer (German-based), and SABIC of Saudi Arabia, produce the lion’s share of world supply, owning around 28 percent and 25 percent of global capacity, respectively.
ABS resins are well established, high-volume, amorphous engineering thermoplastics, which offer an excellent balance of heat, chemical and impact resistance with superior processing versatility. ABS is derived from acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene. It is the largest volume engineering resin and has a relatively mature market, with annual growth rates averaging around five percent during the past 20 years.
Due, in part, to higher raw material costs from benzene, styrene, propylene, acrylonitrile, and especially butadiene, ABS prices reached an all-time high in June 2011, which has led to renewed interest in substitutes for ABS. Record prices, along with weakening global markets, has led to slowing demand for ABS, particularly in China. While demand growth has been slower than for polycarbonate, IHS expects average annual ABS demand growth to be around 5.2 percent during the next five years.
In addition to the IHS Chemical 2012 World Polycarbonates and ABS Analysis, IHS Chemical offers world analyses for other key chemicals, plastics and fiber intermediates on a continual basis. The reports provide comprehensive studies of long-term market trends, and most are produced on an annual basis with a five-year historical market review and supply/demand and price forecast. Other world analyses include: benzene; butadiene; butylenes; chlor-alkali, cumene, phenol and acetone; ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol; light olefins; acetyls; methanol; nylon engineering resins, nylon feedstocks and fibers; petrochemical feedstocks; polyolefins; polystyrene/expandable polystyrene ; soda ash, styrene; terephthalates and polyester; toluene and mixed xylenes; and vinyls.
IHS Chemical brings together the acquisitions of Chemical Week, CMAI, Harriman Chemsult and SRI Consulting. For more information on the IHS Chemical 2012 World Polycarbonates and ABS Analysis or other reports, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To speak with Adrian Beale, please contact email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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