‘Most modern’ butyl rubber plant opens
At an official ceremony on 4 June, attended by around 400 guests, German specialty chemicals firm Lanxess inaugurated its new butyl rubber plant on Singapore’s Jurong Island. Built at a cost of 400 million euros, the facility is the company’s largest ever single investment and is described as being the “most modern of its kind in Asia.” The 100,000 tonne per annum plant will produce premium halobutyl rubber and regular butyl rubber.
The plant entered operation in the first quarter of 2013 and is being ramped up gradually. Commercial production will start in the third quarter of this year, with full capacity expected to be reached in 2015. It is to be staffed by around 160 skilled employees, most of who will be recruited locally. The Jurong Island plant is Lanxess’ third butyl rubber facility, alongside the plants in Sarnia, Canada, and Zwijndrecht, Belgium.
“To me, this new plant is a powerful symbol of our strong belief in the bright future that lies ahead for the rubber industry and the dynamic markets of Asia,” said Axel C. Heitmann, Lanxess’ Board of Management chairman, during the opening ceremony. “This is the largest investment in the company’s history, and underlines the importance of Asia as a location for our synthetic rubber business. We have clearly built this plant with the future of mobility in mind because we think and act long-term.”
Also present at the event were Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, German Ambassador to Singapore Angelika Viets, and Ron Commander, head of Lanxess’ Butyl Rubber business unit. “Riding the growth trend in Asia, Lanxess is using Singapore as their base to grow their Pan-Asian business,” stated Teo Chee Hean. “With companies further expanding their activities in Singapore to include headquarter and R&D activities, we expect a wide range of enriching career opportunities for many Singaporeans in the chemicals sector. I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Lanxess on the opening of its first butyl rubber facility in Asia, and look forward to many more years of fruitful partnership.”
Growth fuelled by a more mobile Asia
Lanxess expects the global butyl rubber market to grow by an average of five per cent per annum through to 2017 and Asia-Pacific growth to reach six per cent, with the main driving force being the megatrend towards mobility, primarily in Asia. The tyre industry accounts for around three-quarters of the sales generated by Lanxess’ butyl rubber business unit, and more than half these sales are generated in Asia.
Giving an example of the opportunities the region presents, Lanxess notes that the number of passenger cars on the road in China and India alone is expected to more than triple within the next 15 years on the basis of the growing middle class there. In addition, the trend towards radialisation in India and China’s commercial vehicle segment is increasing demand for halobutyl rubber, which serves as an impermeable inner liner in truck and bus radials.
A relatively new application for bromobutyl rubber, a type of halobutyl, is in tyre treads. This substance is credited with enhancing tyre characteristics by improving both grip and the associated wet braking performance without compromising rolling resistance. Outside the tyre industry, halobutyl rubber is also used in pharmaceutical closures. This special-purpose rubber is even required by law in some Asian countries, for example China. Some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical closure manufacturers are to be found in Asia. Pharmaceuticals account for some ten per cent of Lanxess’ butyl business. Further non-tyre applications for butyl rubber are protective clothing, shoe soles, adhesives and chewing gum. Its impermeability to gas and resistance to chemicals has also proven valuable in vehicle air conditioning systems and tank linings.
An improved, more environmental production process
The manufacture of butyl rubber involves a series of processes at temperatures ranging from minus 100 to plus 200 degrees Celsius. The raw materials for making butyl rubber are isobutylene and isoprene. These two components are polymerised at -100 °C, the temperature at which butyl rubber forms. In a further step, halobutyl rubber is obtained by means of halogenation, the reaction with chlorine or bromine. The plant is the first entirely new halobutyl rubber facility to be built anywhere in the world since 2000 and, according to Lanxess, the Singapore plant utilises all the recent improvements made in the production process.
Around ten per cent of Lanxess’ total 400 million euro investment has gone towards technologies that make the butyl rubber plant more environmentally friendly. For example, significantly less steam is used in the manufacturing process than in comparable facilities, leading to lower energy consumption. Chemical compounds from the production process are treated in state-of-the-art thermal off gas units, so that the environment is not affected.
“This process is evidence of our global leadership in rubber manufacturing. I am very proud that we are setting new standards in the industry,” said Ron Commander.
Singapore offers ‘ideal conditions’
The butyl rubber facility was engineered and constructed by Foster Wheeler Asia Pacific Pte. Ltd. on a 150,000 square-metre plot on Singapore’s Jurong Island. The premises have been leased from the JTC Corporation, a Statutory Board under the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Jurong Island is located off the coast of the city-state and offers an infrastructure geared specifically to the needs of the chemical and energy sector, which is the largest contributor to Singapore’s manufacturing output and accounts for a third of total manufacturing output. Jurong Island is home to almost 100 companies and S$40 billion (£20.5 billion) worth of investments, and thus provides ideal conditions for Lanxess. For example, the company has secured the long-term supply of isobutene, an important raw material for butyl rubber production, from a neighbouring plant.
Last year, Lanxess also started construction of a new production facility for neodymium-based performance butadiene rubber (Nd-PBR) on Jurong Island, and this is expected to enter production in the second half of 2015. The direct proximity of these two plants creates valuable synergies for the company, for example through joint infrastructure and logistics.
“Our plant here is the most technologically advanced plant for synthetic rubber production in all of Asia…if not in the entire world,” Commander stated during the ceremony. “Our purpose in building it was to ensure that our valued customers in this region have reliable access to a steady supply of high-quality butyl…and that we can continue to provide them with all the materials they need without regard for the costs or uncertainties of transoceanic shipping. After all, butyl sales in Asia now represent more than 50 per cent of our worldwide sales. And of that, half is generated in Greater China alone.”
The company currently employs around 380 people in Singapore. Since 2010, the country has also been home to the global headquarters of its Butyl Rubber business unit, part of Lanxess’ Performance Polymers segment, which recorded sales of 5.2 billion euros in 2012.