Raw materials plant for Dyneema
Initially, research budgets were cut and the number of researchers was reduced. Only when DSM had recovered from the 1982 loss, innovative research could take off again. This research focused on biotechnology and high-performance materials.
The principle behind Dyneema, a super strong fiber, was discovered by accident around 1963. DSM researchers were using stirring gear to obtain a polyethylene solution of uniform temperature when they noticed that polyethylene crystals formed on the stirrers. Further research led to polyethylene fibers: Dyneema. However, no one had any idea how to use these fibers and no process was available for industrial-scale production. In 1979, DSM applied for a patent on a spinning process, but the company lacked the required know-how in the fields of spinning, application development, and marketing. A partner that did have this know-how was sought and found in Toyobo, a Japanese company with which a joint venture was formed in 1986. In the meantime, US-based Allied Signal had developed a spinning process of its own, based on a license from DSM.
In 1990, the production of Dyneema was started at De Beitel, an industrial site near Heerlen, the UHMW-PE (ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene) feedstock being produced in a plant at Chemelot. Toyobo sold the fiber mainly in the Far East, New Zealand and Australia, while Allied sold it especially in the United States, and DSM in the rest of the world.
Dyneema is a strong, stiff, and light-weight fiber that is resistant to UV radiation and many chemicals. It proved to be a suitable alternative for other materials in existing applications. At the start of the Dyneema production, three markets were distinguished: ropes and cables, protection against bullets, and in composites (such as helmets, tennis rackets, and skis). Dyneema also found application in other markets and developed into a success story.
DSM hit upon an opportunity to start producing aspartame, a sweetener that is about 200 times as sweet as beet sugar while having a lower calorie count. Aspartame had been discovered in 1965 by the US company Searle. It took a lot of effort to get this product approved for use as a food ingredient since there were doubts about its safety. France was the first country to allow its use, in 1979. Searle (after 1985 Monsanto) afterwards sold aspartame under the name of NutraSweet, which was used mainly in soft drinks. Searle had obtained patent protection for the product in many applications.
As part of its lysine research efforts (read “How DSM developed into a chemical company”), DSM had also worked on aspartame since 1966, resulting in a patent on an aspartame process in 1972. The product consisted of so-called ‘chiral molecules’, molecules that are each other’s mirror image, one of them having a sweet taste and the other tasting bitter. In 1985, DSM formed a joint venture with Tosoh from Japan: the Holland Sweetener Company. Tosoh had found a method to produce only the sweet aspartame fraction with the help of an enzyme – as in the case of lysine, biotechnology had won the day over chemistry. In 1988, after Searle’s patent for the European market had expired, a plant was started at Chemelot.
In 2006, the production of aspartame was stopped in the face of fierce competition from Asia, particularly China – aspartame had become a commodity.
In 1987, DSM took over fine chemicals producer Andeno at Venlo, the Netherlands, from Océ-Van der Grinten. Since then, DSM’s history is no longer confined to Chemelot. Other takeovers (outside Geleen) followed, for example, Gist-Brocades (1998), Roche’s Vitamins & Fine Chemicals division (2003), Martek (2011), ONC, Kensey Nash, Fortitech (2012), Tortuga (2013), and Aland (2015).
In the 1980s, bulk chemicals research focused on energy efficiency and lower feedstock consumption. Much research was also dedicated to alternative production processes for caprolactam, ammonium sulfate, and melamine. However, the use of these processes in existing plants or the replacement of existing plants turned out unprofitable.
One diversification on the basis of acrylonitrile was the development of nylon 4.6. Named Stanyl, this engineering plastic combines a high temperature resistance with a good impact resistance. It was used mainly in electronics. Commercial production started in 1990. Stanyl is a nylon, in contrast with caprolactam, which is a nylon feedstock.
In 1985, Air Liquide and ACP set up a joint venture called Carbolim, which became the first ‘third-party’ company on the site, besides DSM. The joint venture operated a CO2 production plant at Chemelot, this CO2 being a byproduct of the ammonia synthesis. The carbon dioxide is used for instance in soft drinks and mineral water, for inertizing tanks and processes, to stimulate plant growth in greenhouses, and for plastic foaming.
First divestment: LVM
In 1988, DSM sold its 1972 PVC plant (read “How DSM made a big leap forward”), as the Limburgse Vinyl Maatschappij (LVM), to the Belgian company Tessenderlo Chemie – this being the first in a series of divestments that would continue until 2015. The transaction was inspired by the growing public resistance towards PVC, after problems with dioxin emissions from PVC waste, fed to waste incineration plants.
In 2011, the PVC activities of Tessenderlo Chemie were taken over by the British company INEOS ChlorVinyls. Today, the plant is part of the vinylchlorides company Vynova, a ICIG company with plants at Tessenderlo, Wilhelmshaven, Mazingarbe, Runcorn, and Chemelot. ICIG (International Chemical Investors Group) is a Luxembourg-German industrial investment company, that also owns Enka (formerly AkzoNobel).
The raw materials plant for Dyneema and the Stanyl plant at Chemelot are still owned by DSM, be it that the UHMW-PE plant is operated by SABIC personnel. The former Holland Sweetener Company warehouse is now part of Brightlands Chemelot Campus, where the cleanrooms of Lonza Nederland and Chemelot InSciTe are located. A few years ago, DSM shut down the Venlo site.
Read also “How it started underground”, “The first transition: from coal to chemicals”, and “When it went darker than in a mine shaft”.
This is a repost of my (Dutch) April 9, 2018 post.
Read my May 20, 2013 blog post about the reason why of my English reposts.