Interview to Alberto Fangareggi Senior R&D and TS&D Director at Dow Italy, Correggio

16 March 2017

Alberto Fangareggi is R&D and TS&D Director in Dow Polyurethanes with authority in Europe, Middle East, Africa and India. He has been working for Dow in the Polyurethane Sector since many years, mainly in R&D and TS&D roles, but also in Marketing. For a few years he was R&D Manager for Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Now he works at the Polyurethane Innovation Dow Centre in Correggio (Reggio Emilia, Italy). He holds a degree in Industrial Chemistry at the Parma University.

DOW Chemical does not need an introduction. It is an American multinational corporation whose name is well-known in several industrial sectors: plastics, building & construction, automotive, packaging, agriculture, water treatment and many others.
Since its foundation, Dow aims at innovating. In 2011 it set up, in partnership with SAIP, the project cedepa ( an industrial-scale line conceived and realised to allow building industry, at a worldwide level, to accelerate the development of new solutions for the production of polyurethane insulating panels, produced with the specific technology of continuous double lamination process. A unique and state-of-the-art research & development centre which has been opening new doors to senior and new market players.
We met Dr. Alberto Fangareggi at the Italian Dow headquarters in Correggio (RE), where commercial offices, laboratories and productive plants are situated. Here most of Dow polyurethane specialties destined to worldwide markets are developed and refined.
We asked Alberto Fangareggi to share with us his authoritative opinion about today’s polyurethane state of the art and about the opportunities that could be exploited in future.

Which is the role of Correggio plant for Dow?

The innovation centre of Dow Correggio has a fundamental role on a worldwide level in the polyurethane industry. Correggio boasts particularly three technological excellences, thanks to which it has a considerable role worldwide.
The first one, that is also the most relevant, concerns rigid polyurethane foams technology, conceived for thermic insulating in refrigerators or in the construction industry. Poliisocyanate systems used to produce panels in continuous – always tested in cedepa – are commercialised not only in Europe but also in Latin America and in Asia. These systems originate excellent thermic insulating values together with very good behaviour against fire both of the foam and the panel. Because of this Correggio has a fundamental role in Dow Polyurethanes.
The second field where Dow Correggio stands out is the sector of printed polyurethane foams, especially flexible and microcellular foams used in furniture, automotive and footwear industry. Correggio centre includes also a Dow Automotive R&D group which is developing specific technologies for the vehicle interiors and for car soundproofing “under the hood”.
The third excellence, the newest one, is represented by composite polyurethane: in DOW Correggio we develop composite polyurethanes technologies that are exported all over the world. They are polyurethane composites produced with diversified manufacturing techniques and strengthened with glass or carbon fiber. Although Correggio centre has a technological competence “limited” to Europe, Middle East, Africa and India, it definitely has a global role.

For the new generations, could you offer us an overview on the evolution of the polyurethane industry?

Polyurethane technology started developing in the 50’s. Polyurethane has gradually replaced many other materials in several sectors, where it is still used, thanks to its excellent performances and the limited costs of its application technologies. It replaced mineral wools in insulating, especially in building industry, it replaced PVC in shoes and many other materials in automotive. Car seats were made of fibrous fabrics, today they are made of polyurethane foams; soundproofing was made of cotton felt, whereas today it is produced with polyurethane; the steering wheel was made of plastic or wooden material, now polyurethane is preferred. This changement brought big advantages of lightness and safety. Mattresses nowadays are produced mostly with flexible polyurethane foam.
Actually, there are lots of sectors where polyurethane is used with a fundamental role. It has conquered one by one a series of markets, replacing different materials with performances and cost advantages. In all this places, in these decades, polyurethane has kept its position, not being replaced in turn by other technologies. It has never become obsolete thanks also to continuous improvements of this technology itself.
The only exception is represented by the use of polyurethane for cars bumpers (Reinforced RIM | Reaction Injection Molding). In this case, polyurethane did not manage to compete on big scale productions with polypropylene, which, meanwhile, also improved its performances. RRIM Polyurethane remains competitive for limited production quantities.
Without considering this exception, in every sector where polyurethane was introduced, replacing other materials, it has never been replaced by other technologies.
Furthermore, it should be added that polyurethane industry went through a continuous development towards more and more sustainable technologies, also in connection to law evolution. Let’s consider energy efficiency, flammability and blowing agents. These are just a few themes, on which DOW has always been proactive, considering, before others, these changes an opportunity and not a limit. DOW didn’t have to adequate to new rules along the way: it had already anticipated the evolution of technology.

Which are nowadays the main trends of polyurethane industry and how do you imagine the future scenario?

There are fields where polyurethane has still incredible opportunities of growth; we can see it very clearly in cedepa. Polyurethane is the best widely consumed insulating material and the only one that can be used with several production technologies. For example, continuous prefabricated panel, insulating plate or spraying.
In buiding & construction features like structure properties, thermic conductivity, fire behaviour, make polyurethane an extremely interesting material that will be for sure central in future challenges, especially in construction. Today in Europe polyurethane covers about 10% of insulation in this sector; thanks to its characteristics, this material can aim to much higher market quotes, replacing less performing materials.
The use of polyurethane could be decisively in the seismic safety sector. Although Italy is a high seismic risk area, most of structures are still built using concrete, despite new technologies are available to build lighter and safer structures. The use of steel and prefabricated insulating polyurethane panels could lead not only to lowering seismic risk in favour of safety, but also to benefits linked to a reduction of production costs, speed in construction and to the possibility of reusing structures at their end-of-life, and don’t forget advantages of an excellent thermic insulation. This is true both for the industrial sector and for the domestic one.
Possibilities of development in construction will further increase when European regulations, imposing new specifics on widths of insulation, will come into effect starting from 2020 on. Basing on the climatic area they will may reach even tens of centimetres.
Therefore, in my opinion, there are for real huge growth opportunities for polyurethane as insulating material in building industry and with cedepa we have the possibility of experimenting, testing and implementing very innovative solutions.
The refrigeration sector records a certain level of saturation. Refrigerators are already insulated with polyurethane. The polyurethane technology evolves to further improve the energy efficiency and to keep the market, defending it from other technologies such as Aerogel or Vacuum panel, which are more expensive and don’t have the structural features that the polyurethane foam has, in addition to thermic insulation. DOW is strongly involved in this technological evolution.
On the contrary, the cold chain can grow a lot in countries like India or in Africa, where products do not come intact to the consumer, because of the bad conservation in the phase that goes from collection to sale. Here the implementation of the cold chain can certainly push polyurethane towards positions that are more important. The field is wide: from small and big storage cold rooms, to refrigerated transportation, but also displays and vending machines. This is absolutely a big growth opportunity.
Polyurethane has also an important role in the footwear industry where it competes with many other materials such as PVC, rubber, EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate). Here polyurethane is appreciated due to its lightness and durability.

With regards to the industry of comfort, we see a constant growth especially for the use of viscoelastic for mattresses and pillows. What is your opinion about?

Viscoelastic represents the most important innovation in the last few years in the bedding sector to which gave a decisive boost. This sector offers great opportunities of growth. Technological innovations move towards cool-comfort solutions which confer a major “breathability” to the flexible foam, especially the viscoelastic one, or to the combination of different polyurethane materials, such as gel foam or with phase-changing-material (PCM).
DOW is making many investments in R&D for cool-comfort. We are working in our labs in Horgen, Switzerland, as well as in Correggio, studying comfort basing on temperature and humidity.

In the last few years, a strong acceleration towards green products and raw materials from renewable sources has been registered. In your opinion, is this trend still on going?

That’s an interesting theme, with lots of implications. I think polyurethane has a relevant impact on sustainability, especially for energy efficiency of polyurethane insulation that enables a strong reduction of CO2 emissions. This impact is, in my opinion, bigger than the one that concerns the use of renewable sources. In case of use of these, we always have to consider a LCA involving the entire life cycle, including the potential impact on food chain.
Furthermore, it is necessary to value whether these new technologies, in comparison with the products currently used that are going to be replaced, guarantee a performance at the same level but with no higher costs. If these parameters are not satisfied, products will not be accepted by the market.
DOW uses in some of its products renewable sources that are not subtracted from the food chain and from agriculture.

We talked about regulations in the building sector, in your opinion which other guidelines could be relevant in polyurethane industry?

For example in polyurethane elastomers field, the substance MbOCA, a TDI based commonly used chain extender, is going to be eliminated. DOW has developed a new MDI based elastomers which doesn’t need MbOCA solving the problem at the root. In the past DOW was the leader in removing mercury based catalysts in polyurethane elastomers. DOW and SAIP have cooperated for the project of a casting machine for elastomers HYPERLASTTM, based on MDI and MbOCA-free.

It seems that today there is a closer collaboration between raw materials, systems producers, machine producers and customers. Have we finally understood that to achieve best results we do need to integrate know-how?

I agree with that, definitely. Today it is clear that partnerships between companies are fundamental to innovate and to reply to market needs. Collaboration among partners and companies is a win-win solution. Thanks to the open-innovation concept, there is cooperation among companies, universities, customers and suppliers.
It is an attitude, a successful strategy that led DOW to several partnerships and to excellent achievements.
With SAIP we cooperated to realise different labs machines, such as the one for elastomers or the one in cooperation with UNDP regarding a solution for the use of hydrocarbons; moreover, we realized the project cedepa, which enables both the companies to develop their business and at the same time brings competitive advantages to customers who decide to use it as the innovation tool it is.
I believe that this is the right way to work.