Thermoplastic Polyolefin Elastomers (TPOs)
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Published: December 2010
Thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers (TPOs) are an important part of the broad family of polymers known as thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs). They share with all TPEs the fundamental characteristics of having elastomeric properties, yet they process like a thermoplastic material. They can be fabricated using standard thermoplastic equipment (e.g., extruded, injection- and blow-molded, calendered). A curing step is not necessary to develop optimum properties and scrap can be recycled. Other major types of TPEs include styrenics, polyurethanes, copolyesters and polyamides. Thermoplastic olefins are at the lower end of the price-performance spectrum for thermoplastic elastomers.
TPOs are blends or physical mixtures of a semicrystalline polyolefin and an amorphous elastomer. Thermoplastic vulcanizates (TPVs) are mechanically compounded mixtures of a polyolefin (usually polypropylene) and an elastomer (specialty elastomer or EPDM) that is vulcanized during processing. Reactor-made products (R-TPOs) are propylene-ethylene copolymers made directly in sequential reactors.
In 2010, the combined world consumption of TPOs, TPVs and R-TPOs represented an 8% increase from that of 2009. In retrospect, the 2008–2009 global recession had a depressing effect on demand for almost all end uses of thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers, but especially in the automotive sector, its largest end use.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers:
Despite the economic downturn, high growth rates are still pushing forward in terms of thermoplastic polyolefin elastomer demand. TPOs/TPVs have a better environmental profile than, for example, PVC, so they are finding increasing popularity in passenger car interiors. In addition, thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers have been used instead of traditional thermoset rubbers—a winning competing factor in certain applications. Of equal importance, thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers can also be fully recycled. These benefits will increase the growth in consumption of TPOs and TPVs.
From 2009 to 2015, TPOs, TPVs and reactor-made TPOs will exhibit between 6% and 10% average annual growth in demand. During this forecast period, the highest growth rates will be seen in China, India, Central and South America, and the United States. In fact, the United States will remain the largest consumer of thermoplastic polyolefin elastomers, having a 36% share of the world market for thermoplastic elastomers in 2010.
The TPO market is at risk from new plant capacity being added in China (including new Chinese TPE compounders), and there will be a continued market shift to China and India. In addition, there are numerous factors that lend an element of uncertainty to market forecasts, including the health of the global automotive industry, the continuing evolution of new high-impact polypropylene polymers, and the global recovery rate from the 2008–2009 world recession, to name but a few.