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November 4, 2002
Volume 80, Number 44
CENEAR 80 44 p. 22
ISSN 0009-2347


PROFILE

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Cyclics Corp. hopes that a new twist on polybutylene terephthalate will create a niche

ALEX TULLO

A technology that General Electric passed on in 1999 has fallen into more appreciative hands. Though the incentives to bring cyclic butylene terephthalate (CBT) to market may have been too small for a high-volume resins maker like GE, CBT will suit Cyclics Corp. just fine as the foundation for a brand new chemical company.

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CYCLICS PHOTO

The cyclic form of butylene terephthalate comes in a mix of dimer, trimer, and tetramer forms made by breaking down polybutylene terephthalate (PBT). CBT is useful because of its low viscosity when melted. "You go from a melt viscosity that is chewing-gum-like to a waterlike viscosity," says John Ciovacco, Cyclics' chief executive officer. After CBT is melted, catalysts are added to CBT to polymerize it during processing back into PBT, which is the ultimate form used in the molded part.

This low-viscosity intermediate-step CBT creates an engineering thermoplastic--PBT--that can be used in processes designed for thermoset resins. For example, melted CBT can flow like a thermoset into the glass- or carbon-fiber reinforcing material in composites, but the finished product retains the thermoformability and other properties of a thermoplastic.

CBT has its roots in GE's work from 1984 to 1990 in cyclic polycarbonate. After it turned out that cyclic polycarbonate didn't have enough solvent resistance to work in the automotive and aerospace applications that GE was aiming at, the company looked at other materials that could be made into cyclic forms. It found that PBT could yield a large amount of cyclics, would polymerize rapidly, and had good properties for the intended applications.

From about 1992 to 1997, GE and Ford Motor Co. worked with cyclic PBT technology as part of the National Institute of Standards & Technology's Advanced Technology Program. Driven by the prospect of strict emissions and mileage regulations, the companies sought to make lightweight structural automotive parts from thermoplastics. But eventually, it became apparent that draconian regulations wouldn't come to pass and that a drastic change in materials wasn't needed.

Ciovacco was running a management consulting company when he received a phone call from an old classmate at Union College in Schenectady who worked at GE's research center there. "He said he didn't think GE was continuing to develop this technology, and if somebody could put a business team together, they may have a shot at creating a spin-off business with it," Ciovacco recalls.

A five-member team, including Ciovacco and two former GE scientists, pursued such a route. They got help from Walter L. Robb, a former head of GE's Schenectady global R&D center. Cyclics bought the technology in May 1999. Later, when Cyclics opened its 22,000-sq-ft headquarters, the firm dedicated it to Robb, who is also on the company's board.

So far, Cyclics has about 20 private investors and tens of millions of dollars in financing. About $1.7 million came from the local government in Schenectady.

But Ciovacco is eager to generate revenue. In September, Cyclics announced its first plant, a 5.5 million-lb-per-year line that will be built in Schwarzheide, Germany. The plant will cost about $20 million and start up in 2004. PBT feedstock will come from a BASF/GE joint venture at the site.

To help fund the plant, Ciovacco says it will get millions of dollars in grants and loans from the German government. The funding is part of the country's ongoing effort to develop the former East Germany.

Ciovacco says there is more than enough demand to keep the new plant busy. About half of the demand will come from composites, he says. A quarter will come from compounding, where CBT can incorporate more filler material such as metal or glass than conventional thermoplastics. The rest of the demand will come from rotational molding and other markets.

And Cyclics has had help in getting applications off the ground. In April, the company started an alliance with Dow Chemical to develop automotive structural composites applications such as body panels. In June, it entered a similar relationship with Rohm and Haas to develop thermoplastic powder coatings.

ROTATIONAL MOLDING, where a big part is made in a spinning mold, is another target market for CBT. The application is dominated by polyethylene, but because CBT spreads evenly in the mold, it may offer a foothold for engineering thermoplastics in the application. Similarly, CBT can be used in cast parts, which usually use thermoset resins or nylon.

Cyclics is targeting a $2.50- to $3.50-per-lb price range for CBT. But such prices will have to wait for a second, bigger CBT plant that the company is currently designing. To further reduce costs in the bigger plant, Cyclics has a route that can make CBT without going through the polymer step, but, for now, using the polymer is cheaper. The company can also buy PBT on the open market or use off-spec and recycled materials.

Cyclics employs about 25 people in the U.S. and seven people in Europe--making it a mouse in a world of polymer giants.

Ciovacco realizes that introducing a new polymer technology is a huge undertaking that many bigger companies have failed at. "A lot of large chemical companies spend enormous amounts of money developing materials," he says. "I don't think our company will avoid all that, but we are able to respond to changes rapidly as a small company, and we are very focused on a set of customers and a base material. Chances are pretty good we won't break the bank."



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