Say Goodbye to That New-Car Smell

Bad news for those who enjoy the heady aroma of a new car or unboxed sneakers. Turns out, eau de VOC is very last year.

Polyurethane is a marvel material, one that can be frothed into foam insulation or coated onto plastics, car-seat leather, or any surface designed to take a beating. But manufacturers are increasingly looking for alternatives to the traditional solvents used in PU Dispersions in scuff-proof coatings. One solution is di-methylolpropionic acid or DMPA, a crystalline additive enabling water-borne formulations.

The market for DMPA for PUDs is currently growing at 7% or more a year, according to Markus Jönsson, head of resins and coatings at Perstorp AB. The technology has been around a while, but its use is becoming more widespread. Alongside classical applications like top coats for flooring and kitchen cabinets, DMPA is turning up in phones, adhesives and electronics, as well as in flexible surfaces like textiles.

It’s poignant that Perstorp’s first major deal after emerging from years of restructuring was to acquire its major competitor in the U.S. to cement its No. 1 position in DMPA. The purchase of the business from GEO Specialty Chemicals for an undisclosed sum not only marks a change in tone at the company, but its strategy shift toward a more sustainable product offering, Jönsson said.

Now entering his fifth year at the Swedish chemical company, the former Novozymes and Akzo Nobel executive avoided some gruelling years. Bought by PAI Partners in 2005, Perstorp was saddled with a heavy debt load and an unwieldy portfolio of commodity products. The tone has changed. Having done the GEO deal, Perstorp will be looking into further investment projects in DMPA to expand in the Asia Pacific region, especially China, where demand is the strongest.

Founded by Wilhelm Wendt in the namesake town of Perstorp, southern Sweden, the diversified manufacturer of chemicals has repeatedly reinvented itself over its 140-year history. Perstorp rode the wave when plastics first burst onto the scene, opening Scandinavia’s first factory.

The centre of gravity is shifting once again due to sustainability, away from commodities toward specialty chemicals like ingredients for animal feed and phthalate-free plastics. From car makers to paint company Akzo Nobel, Perstorp’s customers are watching emissions, whether that’s VOCs or emissions from upstream raw-material supplies.

As chemicals go, DMPA is relatively benign, classed as a non-toxic substance with no special requirements for transportation in the US. Perstorp’s challenge is to broaden its portfolio in areas like water-borne solutions and secure sustainable raw materials, whether made internally or from suppliers like Borealis’ Stenungsund cracker in Sweden. Perstorp itself has launched Project AIR: the construction of a plant that combines a carbon capture and utilisation unit with a gasification process to produce methanol. The company annually consumes 200,000 tons of fossil-based methanol in Europe annually.

“We have scientists working on that part as well,” Jönsson said. “For brand owners in consumer products, that’s the next end-game. After being able to replace solvents with water, they want to target the materials. Whether it’s a car seat or leather bag or jacket, their end game is to have that 100% renewable.”

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