🏭 Not your typical rebar

Exxon is bringing a new polymer to market, and partly through some new rebar.

Good morning! A couple of weeks ago I saw a company on Twitter, called GatorBar, tweet that they are “so back”. I’m a sucker for brand personification, so I clicked:

It turns out that GatorBar is manufacturing rebar out of a composite (aka a polymer plus some glass blended in), instead of steel, and they are marketing it as 2x stronger and 7x lighter. For someone who has never used rebar, I have no idea how important those strength and weight benefits are, nor how much extra construction companies would be willing to pay for them. But if these benefits are valuable, and if the cost of the rebar is competitive, then this would make for an interesting case study in pricing power for the material producer: it’s a case where the functionality of the product is tied up in the material layer (i.e. it won’t perform as intended unless it uses exactly this one material). So—what is that material?

Fortunately, GatorBar is actually transparent about this, and they proudly state (at the beginning of another product video) that they are using “ExxonMobil’s Proxxima resin system”.

The context you need:
Exxon is using the “Proxxima” brand name to label a group of thermoset polymers made with a technology developed by the late Dr. Robert Grubbs: ruthenium catalysis and ring-opening metathesis polymerization. Grubbs (and his co-founder) spun the technology out of Cal Tech back in 1999 by forming Materia. I’m not exactly sure what Materia has been involved in for the last couple of decades, but I know the company sold the catalyst fraction of their business to Umicore in 2017, and then sold the rest to Exxon in 2021.

Okay, so what is this stuff?
According to Plastic News, these “are two-part thermoset systems created with proprietary blends of dicyclopentadiene (DCPD) and other co-monomers and additives for fine control of performance and reactivity”. If you’re unfamiliar, pretty much all of the world’s DCPD is produced as a by-product of steam cracking ethane or naphtha. This stuff mostly finds itself in a bunch of specialty use cases (unsaturated polyester resins, hydrocarbon resins, and elastomers like ethylidene norbornene), but if you do Grubbs’ ring-opening metathesis polymerization, you end up with polydicyclopentadiene. I can’t find that polymer listed anywhere on Exxon’s or GatorBar’s websites, but I’m pretty sure that’s what this stuff is.

Zooming out:
Exxon expects revenue from selling these polymers to rise from effectively zero to one billion dollars by 2040. And their SVP of Specialty Products sounds pretty bullish to me: “You will hear about the Proxxima brand. These are thermoset resins, and, in a nutshell, they cure faster, they are stronger, more durable, and lighter than existing product in the marketplace. I strongly believe that no other companies has the ability to scale these technology breakthroughs into products society needs.”

What do you think?

(Also, if you know anything else about this, please drop me a comment!)

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What else is going on:

  • Dow Chemical started up their new MDI distillation and prepolymers plants in Freeport, TX. The startup of the new plants coincides with the shutdown of their existing MDI production a couple of hours north in La Porte, TX—if you know why they shut down the old site, let me know!

  • South Korea’s SKC Co. is planning to build a new polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) plant. PBAT is a weird polymer because it biodegrades better than polylactic acid (PLA), but it’s made from petroleum-based molecules: adipic acid, 1,4-butanediol, and terephthalic acid.

  • France's Arkema announced plans to expand their dimethyl disulfide (DMDS) production at its site in Beaumont, TX. This stuff is most commonly used to prepare catalysts for hydrodesulfurization, but Arkema is saying that it’s the demand for DMDS as a biofuel additive that is driving the investment.

  • Huntsman is piloting a process that converts natural gas into hydrogen and carbon nanotubes. It’s really similar to the methane pyrolysis we see Monolith doing up in Nebraska, but with the intent of making nanotubes instead of carbon black. (Which isn’t crazy or anything, we make nanotubes from carbon black.)

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