Demand for dispersions additives has been growing faster than the coatings market itself. Coatings producers want more effective dispersions to reduce resins and pigments costs.
Also, efficient dispersions help coatings manufacturers to comply with tighter European environmental regulations, especially in areas like emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Another driving force is the rising need among coatings manufacturers for more individualized products to meet the specific needs of their customers.
One of the best ways to provide tailor-made coatings is to reformulate dispersions. This is an increasing trend in Europe among SME coating manufacturers and specialist dispersion producers whose market strategy is to respond quickly to new requirements in the market.
This has divided the European dispersions segment into large players, including big dedicated dispersion and dispersion agent producers and multinational coatings producers often backward integrated into raw materials, and SMEs with a more sharply targeted approach.
In the process of developing more effective technologies, dispersion producers have had to gradually extend the scope of their operations further downstream.
This is particularly the case with research-based speciality chemical companies who are well established in the development and production of dispersions. They are the ones with the expertise in key field like polymers, rheology and surface technologies.
As they extend the range of their activities, a major dilemma for dispersion companies is how they avoid becoming competitors with their own customers because what they provide can be close to being complete coatings products.
However, they have little choice but to shift downstream. They themselves are facing competition from new entrants into their market for dispersion and dispersion additives which is looking increasingly attractive because of its relatively high growth rates.
“The global coatings and printing inks markets in general, and particularly of waterborne and high solids solvent based systems are growing with above-average speed,” said Stefan Silber, senior vice-president and general manager for coating additives at German-based Evonik Industries AG, one of Europe’s leading dispersants producers.
In response to this strong growth, dispersion companies have been broadening their portfolios to meet the major trends in the European and global markets. These include the need for greater pigment stability and higher color yields, low emissions of volatile organic compounds, and reduction in production costs such as for milling.
Companies want strong positions in pigment and colorant dispersion, as was reflected in the recent merger in the tinting sector of Chromaflo Technologies, Ashtabula, Ohio and CPS Color Colorants of Finland. This initiative in vertical integration brings together Chromaflo’s expertise in pigment and chemical dispersions with CPS’s know-how in colorants for architectural and industrial coatings.
“We see a clear trend to rationalization in coatings manufacture with more and more customers working with tinting or full mixing processes,” said Silber. “These put very high demands on dispersion results, pigment stabilization and compatibility. Our portfolio of cutting-edge dispersants for all technologies and pigments fits very well to this trend.”
Evonik is close to completing the building of a new polymer dispersants plant at Essen, Germany, which will triple its global capacity for the products. The dispersants from the unit, scheduled to start up in the first quarter of next year, increase color intensity and colorant yield, while their viscosity-lowering effect lowers production costs by maximizing pigment concentration during dispersion.
Many of the company’s wetting and dispersant additives, sold under the Tego Dispers label, can be applied to both waterborne and solvent coatings as well both organic and inorganic pigments.
Altana, another German-based speciality chemicals company with a large business in disperants, effect pigments and other coatings raw materials, which last year took over Rockwood Holdings’ rheology additives operation, has developed a pigment stabilizer for use in aqueous and solventborne system.
The technology, which has won the company’s annual innovation award, is comprised of a comb copolymer which enables this ‘universal’ application to be made through a single additive.
Arkema, a French-based international speciality chemicals company, has developed a pigment dispersion technology, called Bumper, to meet the demand for additives to lower the titanium dioxide (TiO2) content of coatings. The technology can also be used to make dispersions for TiO2 alternatives like zinc oxide and barium sulphate.
“Bumper is a very efficient spacer technology for inorganic pigments like TiO2,”explained Fabienne Drouel, marketing communications manager at Arkema’s Coatex coating additives business. “It has helped curb costs when TiO2 has been expensive. That is not the case so much today because TiO2 prices have weakened so we’ve been looking at ways to use the technology to add value to other kinds of pigments.”
BASF, the world’s largest chemicals company, is able to exploit its production of a wide range of raw material to run both a coatings operation and a separate business for dispersion and pigments. It has been able, for example, to concentrate on developing solutions for energy-curable coatings along much of the value chain-- from speciality monomers, binders through to UV-curable dispersions.
The R&D resources of SMEs are, on the other hand, becoming stretched as they endeavour to satisfy the demand among customers, particularly in the industrial and protective coatings market, for individualized products. These usually have to be produced in small quantities based on one-off formulations developed in house rather than on standardised systems from outside.
“SMEs are wanting to take full advantage of their flexibility by being able to provide customized products in small batches,” explained Felipe Wolff-Fabris, business unit manager of the European Centre for Dispersion Technologies, Selb, Germany. “A lot of the larger coatings and dispersion producers tend to have to provide standardised products because they do not want to change processes just to make a batch of a few tons.”
The European Centre for Dispersion Technologies, which opened earlier this year as a research and technology transfer institution, is run by SKZ, a German research and quality assurance services company with help from funds from the German government.
It provides assistance to companies, mainly SMEs in coatings, plastics, nanocomposites and other sectors, in areas like development of materials, processes and analytical methods.
“Coatings and other companies now have a much greater choice of dispersion agents to develop their own formulations,” said Wolff-Fabris. “But developing formulations for small batches is expensive both financially and in the use of resources. SMEs in particular need support which is why we’ve set up this centre.”
The setting-up of the center, which was suggested by the coatings and other formulation industries, highlights the extent of innovation in dispersions taking place at all levels of the coatings sector in Europe.