Synthetic rubbers from TAIF Group: from bubble gum to BelAZ

TAIF Group produces almost half of the world's isoprene rubbers and about 18% of butyl rubbers

From chewing gums to car tires and impact-resistant plastic components — the modern world is just impossible to imagine without rubber, or caoutchouc: surgical gloves and watering hoses are made of it, rubber is in medical equipment, automobiles, aircraft, ships, aerospace and computer technology, products of military-industrial complex, oil refinery equipment, shoes, clothes, the road and residential construction, agriculture and chemical industries cannot do without it... It is easier to say where it is not used than to list all the industries where it is used. What is more, the demand for rubber grows constantly. If in 2005 the total global consumption of natural and synthetic rubbers barely exceeded 21 million tonnes, then in 2018 it reached 29,3 million tonnes and, according to experts, in 2019 it is expected to grow by another million, where natural rubbers will account for 14,23 million tonnes, synthetic ones — 15,8 million tonnes. According to the data presented at the recent general meeting of shareholders, last year TAIF Group produced almost 725,000 tonnes of synthetic rubbers, thereby once again confirming the right to enter the top 10 world's largest producers of synthetic rubbers. About how over the past decade and a half the world market of rubbers has changed and how the rubber production facilities of TAIF have developed along with it — read in the material of Realnoe Vremya.

From the history of caoutchouc

The process of rubber vulcanization was patented as early as in the 1840s by Charles Goodyear. In 1846, Scottish scientist Robert Thompson invented and patented the pneumatic tyre. However, at the time the invention was not further developed since there was no enough thin rubber necessary for such more comfortable tyres in the world. The lull did not last long. The year 1888 — another Scotsman, John Dunlop, unveiled first the pneumatic tyre for bicycles, then for carriages, then for cars, and the world was gripped by rubber fever. The material was so in demand that the seekers of happiness, ready to risk life and health in search of rubber plants and an opportunity to get rich, streamed to the rainforests of Brazil. The demand for rubber was growing at an unprecedented pace. By hook or by crook, despite the ban of the government, hevea seeds were being exported from Brazil. There were rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, but there was a shortage of rubber. And inventions were going one after another:

— 1891 — the Michelin brothers patented the removable pneumatic tyre;

— 1894 — E. J. Pennington introduced the balloon tyre;

— 1903 — Goodyear patented tubeless tyre, so the story is described in a special edition of Popular Petrochemistry.

The shortage of natural rubbers forced scientists from all over the world to look for an alternative. There were many attempts. In the late nineteenth century, Gustave Bouchard, a French chemist, treated isoprene with hydrochloric acid. The result was something similar to caoutchouc, but poorly suitable for the production of rubber. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ivan Kondakov, a Russian citizen, was able to synthesize an elastic polymer. Later, a trial batch of synthetic rubber was produced in Germany based on his developments. In 1909, another German, Fritz Hoffmann, patented the synthetic rubber manufacturing process. But Russia still had more rights to claim authorship in the invention of the artificial analogue of natural rubber. Professor Lebedev in the same year 1909 at a meeting of the Chemical Society presented a report on the thermal polymerization of hydrocarbons such as divinyl and provided the scientific community with samples of synthetic rubber. It should be noted that on the basis of this invention for the first time in the world the industrial production of synthetic rubbers was created. The professor continued the work in this direction after the revolution of 1917, was awarded the order of Lenin and elected to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Synthetic rubber began its triumphant march around the world, making a worthy competitor to natural rubbers, and by a number of parameters, such as the stability of characteristics, significantly surpassing it.

Petrochemistry all around

Everyone knows that there is petrochemistry, but few people think about how many things created by this industry surround us. For example, synthetic rubbers. In Russia, its largest producer is Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC, part of TAIF Group.

Scientists have estimated that at the moment about 40,000 names of products made of rubber and caoutchouc for all areas of industry and life are produced. Almost every family today has a car, and sometimes more than one. Numerous cars and buses travel the roads, cyclists pedal, trucks hurry to deliver goods, tractors and combines work in the fields. In the tyres on wheels of all these vehicles, there is a share, and considerable one, of the Nizhnekamsk rubber. And not only in Russia.

The giants of BelAZ are also “shod” in Nizhnekamsk rubber. The tyres for the largest trucks in the world, capable of lifting up to 450 tonnes at a time, are manufactured by Belshina, which has long purchased rubbers of the SKI, SKD-N, GBK brands from Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC. Also, a major consumer of synthetic rubbers of the SKI, SKD-N, GBK and BK brands from TAIF Group is the Altai Tyre Plant, whose truck tyres and wheels for agricultural machinery are well known throughout the former Soviet Union, as well as in Romania, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Guinea. 7,5 million tyres produced a year by three plants of the public company Cordiant are sold out not only throughout Russia but also in more than 50 countries, including Western and Eastern Europe, the United States, and seriously compete both in the Russian and foreign markets with the products of the largest tyre manufacturer in the Russian Federation — Nizhnekamskshina PJSC, producing more than 11 million pieces of tyres for cars and trucks, agricultural, construction and special equipment a year. Both Cordiant and Nizhnekamskshina manufacture their products from synthetic rubbers of the SKI, SKD-N, GBK and BK brands from Nizhnekamskneftekhim. Among the consumers of synthetic rubbers from Nizhnekamskneftekhim, there are almost all tyre manufacturers in Russia and the CIS. TAIF Group notes that they are ready to fully meet the growing demand for high-quality synthetic rubbers of Russian tyre manufacturers. The group of companies has enough production capacity for this.

Among the consumers of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC, what is more — key ones, there are also the giants of the tyre market with world names such as Michelin, Pirelli, Continental, Bridgestone, Goodyear. The fruitful cooperation between the parties has been going on for many years.

“I thank you for the cooperation, for the technological efforts that you have made,” Marco Tronchetti Provera, the Chief Executive Officer of Pirelli, addressed the TAIF's management, when in 2017 the companies signed another long-term cooperation agreement, under which Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC is guaranteed to supply synthetic rubbers produced by it to the plants of the Italian concern for at least another 5 years.

Tatarstan caoutchouc wins Formula 1 races and wins the stages of the Dakar Rally, conquers impassable roads and rustles on the smooth canvas of high-speed highways. And the roads themselves cannot do without caoutchouc: thermoplastic elastomers — special additives to the asphalt coating, providing roads greater strength, resistance to abrasion and temperature changes, contain caoutchouc and largely thanks to it acquire such properties. TAIF is planning to establish the production of such bitumen. TAIF-NK intends to include thermoplastic elastomers produced by Nizhnekamskneftekhim in the composition of special bitumen. The component will be useful not only in Tatarstan. The Russian climate is harsh, and the high-quality, durable roads are needed everywhere.

When buying chewing gum in a store, no one suspects that 20% of it consists of ... synthetic rubber. There are not many companies in the world that have a special recipe and are ready to guarantee compliance with special very strict sanitary conditions in its manufacture. Since 2014, Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC has established the production of such caoutchouc on an industrial scale and today supplies its products to the American multinational company Mondelez International, which produces food products and, in particular, chewing gum under the brand Dentyne.

By the way, gum is not the only product on the shelves of grocery stores that is related to the products of Nizhnekamskneftekhim. Packaging for yoghurt, disposable tableware are made of styrene plastics with the addition of synthetic rubber.

Besides, styrene plastics are used to make CDs, interior details and the housings of household appliances, children's toys and travel suitcases, food containers, containers for household chemicals and huge containers for storage of petroleum products, acids, alkalis. Such plastics are used in the manufacture of electrical appliances and medical equipment, and in addition, parts of the interior of cars, including instrument panels, a number of structural elements, such as radiator grilles.

It is impossible to do without synthetic rubber the space industry and aircraft industry. In each airliner, in addition to special tyres, there are about 10,000 rubber parts. We can safely say that almost every plane has a piece of TAIF.

The fact that Tatarstan caoutchouc is present in medical devices has already been mentioned above. But the rubber band holding the disposable mask on the face is also synthetic rubber. And suction hoses. And elastic bandages, and bands, helping to recover faster after trauma... In any operating room, in the ward, in the waiting room of each hospital, polyclinic, you can easily count a few dozen or even hundreds of items where synthetic rubber is used. If we consider that more than half of its total volume in Russia is produced by TAIF, it would not be a mistake to say that the group of companies is also directly related to the success of the country's healthcare industry.

The list can be continued endlessly: the elements of baby carriages, special toys that give babies who are teething to chew, nipples on feeding bottles — it is also synthetic rubber. That’s means that also — TAIF.

When others were cutting production

The chemical complex is one of the basic segments of the Russian industry. And Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC (part of TAIF Group) is its key player. This is indicated by the following figures: if in the relatively prosperous year 2005, all Russian producers of synthetic rubber produced 1,141,500 tonnes, out of which the share of Nizhnekamskneftekhim accounted for 333,300 tonnes, or 29,2% of the total produced in Russia synthetic caoutchouc, then in the crisis year 2009, when Russian producers of synthetic caoutchouc were forced to reduce the volumes and in the whole country it was produced only 976,700 tonnes, Nizhnekamskneftekhim reported on the production of 425,000 tonnes, or 43,5% of all Russian caoutchouc, and continued to increase capacity. As well as in the subsequent years. In 2012, with the all-Russian volume of 1,253,300 tonnes, the share of TAIF Group amounted to 589,000 tonnes. In 2014 — out of 1,148,400 tonnes in the country, Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC produced 618,500 tonnes, or almost 54% of the total Russian caoutchouc. By the end of 2018, all Russian producers of synthetic caoutchouc produced only 1,044,100 tonnes of products, and the share of Nizhnekamskneftekhim in these volumes reached a record 69% of the total volume of all synthetic rubber produced in Russia, or 724,900 tonnes. More than twofold increase to the own result 13 year ago.

“In 2004, we were the third in the world to launch halobutyl rubbers. Before that, we produced only SKI and BK. We started with a capacity of 35,000 tonnes a year for GBK (halobutyl rubbers), and now we produce a total of 220,000 tonnes of BK and GBK. The development was going rather slow, but we were seriously engaged in caoutchouc production. First, the main direction was the production of rubber for the manufacture of truck tyres, and later, along with the development of Nizhnekamskneftekhim, the production of rubbers for passenger tyres also actively began to grow. These synthetic rubbers were mainly based on cobalt-based polybutadiene. Back in 2003, together with the research and development centre, the works began on the creation of “green” caoutchouc on a neodymium catalyst. Even then, the environmental issues of tyres were raised quite rigidly. Since 2004, we have launched production of 40,000 tonnes a year of synthetic rubbers on the neodymium catalyst — SKDN. And we quite quickly reached 180,000 tonnes a year. These were all domestic developments. Our R&D is very good with rubber theme. From the very beginning, he participated in all commissioning with us, actively helped in bringing the rubbers to the desired condition, in improving the quality. Gradually we increased both the branded range and production volumes,” the head of the department on management and strategic development of Nizhnekamskneftekhim group, Khamit Gilmanov, gave a brief outline of the history to the journalist of Realnoe Vremya.

Nizhnekamskneftekhim has always been one of the largest producers of synthetic rubbers in the world. Our share of the SKI market increased from 30,8% in 2004 to 47,5% in 2018. As for butyl rubbers, we grew from 10,3% in 2004 to 17,9% in 2018. In butadiene rubbers — from 1,1% in 2004 (we then made the first steps in the synthesis of polybutadiene and produced rubber on a cobalt catalytic system) to 5,6% in 2018. Now we are confidently among the top 10 global manufacturers of synthetic rubbers,” Azat Bikmurzin, the director general of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC, said in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.

Conditions can not be called comfortable for production

The cost of synthetic rubbers and the development of the industry as a whole is influenced by a whole range of factors: currency quotations, the cost of oil, gas and petroleum products, the prices for natural rubbers, production volumes in general, and hence — the saturation of the market offers and the activity of rubber products’ productions. Even the political situation, where economic leverage remains one of the most effective methods of influencing opponents, directly affects world markets.

From 2002 to 2012, global demand for rubbers grew rapidly. Natural rubbers for 10 years increased in price by 266%, on which the producers responded: the area under rubber plants was expanded and planted with new trees. The production of synthetic rubbers in the wake of rising demand also began to actively expand and increase the volume and range.

New plantings of rubber plants began to yield after 7 years, the market began to receive more natural rubber and, having ceased to feel hunger, reacted with stabilization of prices. By 2012, demand for natural rubber in China — the largest consumer of this raw material — slowed down, and then began to fall. Similar trends were observed in the world market. Since 2019, the decline in demand for new cars and the weakening of the growth of the global economy as a whole have begun. The largest producers of natural rubber in the world Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — at that time they accounted for 70% of all natural rubber — agreed to reduce the supply of raw materials, as well as cutting down old rubber plants. Nevertheless, the prices continued to fall. From 2011 to the present, the cost of natural rubbers has collapsed by more than 3,5 times. In this wake, certain difficulties arose for the producers of synthetic rubbers:

“In recent years, the economic conditions cannot be called comfortable for the production and sale of synthetic rubbers. Since about 2013-2014, the global synthetic rubber market has been characterized by excess production capacity. A wave of new projects, which were launched in the world (mainly in Asia) at the peak of prices in 2010-2011, by 2013-2014 made the global synthetic rubber market surplus. The commissioning of new production facilities took place during a period of decline in prices and demand for synthetic rubbers. The negative situation, unfortunately, is also observed today: the market is in a state of chronic oversupply. Therefore, there is an acute competition between manufacturers on two fronts at a time: technological (it is the competition between technologies and quality) and in terms of costs. Those survive in this struggle who can offer interesting scientific and technical solutions and, at the same time, remain competitive in price,” said Azat Bikmurzin.

The trade war between the United States and China, which resulted in a decline in production and sales of vehicles, led to a drop in demand for tyres, which negatively affected the consumption of both natural and synthetic rubbers. In 2019, the economies of the leading consumers of rubber continued to decline: in India, the production of vehicles has fallen to the level of 2018 by more than 18%, in China — by almost 14%. Experts expect noticeable positive trends in the market of natural rubber production not earlier than in 3-5 years.

“This change should have a positive impact on the global market for synthetic rubber. Demand will increase, prices will begin to rise. We understand the cyclical nature of the synthetic rubber market and know that our trading partners will need our rubber in larger volumes than we supply them now. Therefore, we try to use this time to prepare for a period of high demand. We are engaged in modernization of our production chains of synthetic rubbers, pursuing two goals: optimization of own costs and an increase in production volumes. We are working on expanding the range of rubber products, relying on special rubbers that can give our partners advantages in the performance of their tyres,” said Azat Bikmurzin.

New production facilities and product-line expansion — in the annual mode

“Every year without exception, TAIF Group introduces the production of new products or implements measures to expand the brand range at the existing facilities at Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC. In the period from 2004 to 2007, the grand commissioning of rubber productions took place: GBK (2004), SKD-N (2004) and SKD-L (2007). Since 2003 and until 2014, we consistently put into operation the production facilities of plastics: four lines of polystyrene, ABS plastics, polypropylene and polyethylene. In 2016, the production of linear alpha-olefins was set up, including those used in the production of linear grades of PE. Starting from 2019, the new brand of neodymium polybutadiene rubber SKDN 44M1 is produced, which is characterized by a narrower polydispersity, which has a positive impact on the performance of tyres,” said the director general of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC.

In 2020, it is planned to put into operation a plant for the production of solvent styrene-butadiene rubber (DSSK) with a capacity of 60,000 tonnes a year.

“The creation of the production of solution styrene-butadiene rubber (DSSK) is one of the most significant projects of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC in the field of rubber development. This type of rubber is an indicator of the development of the rubber industry in the world. All leading manufacturers of synthetic rubber Asahi Kasei, JSR, Kumho, Trinseo, Arlanxeo, Versalis, Michelin, etc. have in their portfolio butadiene-styrene brands produced in solution. At the same time, today the DSSK brands are increasingly shifting towards rubbers of special purpose, and in the world the functionalized brands of DSSK are in great demand. The use of such caoutchouc in the manufacture of the tire treads provides an optimal balance of rolling resistance, wet grip and wear resistance,” Azat Bikmurzin explained.

The pilot unit of PJSC Nizhnekamskneftekhim has already developed the technology for producing three new brands: DSSK-621, DSSK-628 and DSSK-610. All developed brands correspond to the fourth and fifth generations of rubbers in terms of performance and environmental friendliness. With the launch of the DSSK unit, Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC is going to become one of the few production facilities in the world that produce all the main types of solution synthetic rubbers for the tyre industry.

But they do not plan to stop there: TAIF has already launched projects for the production of the dehydrogenation catalyst KDI-M, MPEG, TPEG, the new, even larger ones are being implemented: the construction of the ethylene complex and the methanol production complex, by 2021 it is planned to complete the construction of its own CCGT with a capacity of 495 MW.

It should be noted that expanding the production capabilities and range of rubbers, TAIF Group companies pay close attention to environmental issues. Thus, the complex for the production of methanol, with a capacity of 500,000 tonnes a year, which is planned to be built on the industrial site of Nizhnekamskneftekhim, will be built on the site of three other obsolete production facilities. The use of reliable modern equipment, closed cooling systems and a number of innovations, about which the representatives of the company told at public hearings held in July, allows three times to reduce the burden on the environment: emissions into the atmosphere, the abstraction and use of river water, etc., compared with the plants on the place of which the complex is to appear.

“Nizhnekamskneftekhim needs its own methanol production. It is imported today. This is a danger during transportation, and evaporation during unloading and washing of tanks (more than 4,000 tanks with methanol are delivered to Nizhnekamsk production facility annually). But drains after washing also require thorough treatment. The recently renovated biological treatment facilities of Nizhnekamskneftekhin do cope with the task and will cope in the future. But if the volume of runoff is reduced — it will be even better. Again, it is necessary to store sufficient volume for uninterrupted production. With the opening of its own complex, the required amount of methanol will be produced on the spot. No open areas: natural gas comes through the pipe, the required amount of methanol is produced, which immediately goes to the redistribution. Nothing needs to be taken anywhere, ship, there is no need to create stocks that need to be stored. What could be better? It is also safer,” expressed his opinion Khamit Gilmanov.

With the commissioning of the methanol production complex, TAIF Group will be able to fully provide itself with everything necessary for the production of synthetic rubbers. The four main types of monomers — used in the technologies of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC, isobutylene, butadiene 1-3, isoprene and styrene — the company produces independently. Some deficiency of butadiene, which is formed with the launch of the DSSK complex in 2020, will be compensated with the launch of the new complex. With the commissioning of these facilities, the total annual volume of synthetic rubbers produced by Nizhnekamskneftekhim will grow. The negotiations are underway to acquire a license for the production of MDI and TDI isocyanates, with subsequent development of polyurethane production technology. In Russia, no one produces them yet. The main components for these productions will also appear in the product line with the launch of the new ethylene production.

Khamit Gilmanov: “Our rubbers have always been considered good”

At the moment, the branded range of synthetic rubbers of TAIF Group has eight directions:

  • SKI-3 isoprene rubber is used for mechanical rubber goods manufacture, tyre and other industries;
  • butyl rubber BK-1675 is designed for the manufacture of tire inner tubes, press bladder diaphragms and butyl rubber latex. In addition, it is actively used in construction, industrial rubber, light industry, is effective for the manufacture of anti-corrosion, sealing and waterproofing coatings, various mastics, pastes, sealants and adhesives;
  • brominated butyl rubber BBK is used in rubber and tyre industries and in the manufacture of medical products;
  • chlorobutyl rubber KhBK, like BBK, is used in the tyre and rubber industry and for the manufacture of medical products;
  • butadiene rubber on neodymium catalytic system SKD-N is used in the tyre industry and in the manufacture of a wide range of industrial rubber products;
  • butadiene rubber on lithium catalytic system SKD-L is used in the modification of styrene plastics, increasing the impact strength of impact-resistant polystyrene;
  • styrene-butadiene rubber (block copolymer) DSSK 2012 is intended for use in the production of plastics and rubber products.

The main consumers of TAIF Group’s rubbers are European, American and Japanese tyre companies: Michelin, Goodyear, Pirelli, Continental, Bridgestone, Belarusian Belshina and others. The fact that the world's leading companies prefer Nizhnekamsk rubber is simply explained: Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC is always focused on the consumer. Creating new and modernizing the existing production of synthetic rubbers, TAIF Group always strives for one thing: to produce and offer its partners only quality products.

“All world's leading companies have always considered and consider the rubber produced by Nizhnekamskneftekhim one of the best. We have never had any problems with sales. Moreover, its rubbers often lacked. A large part of our products was shipped to Tatarstan and Russian tyre manufacturers, the rest was exported. Those several types of DSSK that have already been developed and produced at our pilot plant, by the way, the best in Russia, are intended for tyre production, for the construction industry, in particular, as an additive that increases the wear resistance of the roadway, as well as for the modification of plastics, have already sold in small batches for testing by advanced profile firms in the world and received positive feedback. Our rubbers have always been considered good, and we appreciate and do everything to maintain this reputation,” Khamit Gilmanov explained.

“Why do the world's famous largest tyre manufacturers choose our rubber? It is better to ask them this question. I think that in many respects it is a combination of a number of factors: high quality, extensive experience in the production of synthetic rubbers and professionalism of the production and commercial team, convenience of working with us, as we are ready to offer almost the entire range of synthetic rubbers necessary for the tyre industry at all stages of production — from treads to innerliner. TAIF Group has a high level of vertical integration of production, which allows to realize the entire production chain from monomers to rubbers. In addition, we are distinguished by competitiveness and responsibility: we do not change the terms of already concluded contracts. So, even suffering a heavy loss, we have fulfilled all obligations to our partners on isoprene rubber last year and continue to fulfil this,” said Azat Bikmurzin.

The products of rubber productions of TAIF Group, the brands such as SKDL and DSSK-2012, are widely used in the production of modified plastics, both impact-resistant and those that are used in the manufacture of food packaging, toys and other consumer goods. Providing its own facilities for the production of such plastics, Nizhnekamskneftekhim exports the produced synthetic rubbers. The products are in demand in Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan, Brazil, Malaysia and a number of other countries.

The consumers of synthetic rubbers of Nizhnekamskneftekhim are the companies of global renown. They open their plants all over the world. Along with this, the geography of supplies is expanding. At the moment, it is about 50 countries. But not only in conquering new markets TAIF Group sees opportunities for expanding the sales. Even more opportunities, the manufacturer is sure, open up in the development of new niches for the use of synthetic rubbers.

By Arseny Favstritsky