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From diapers to fenders: The future of plastics

Reading time: 4 min

Plastics are moving towards being lighter, harder, more robust – with a clear focus on environmentally friendly, sustainable production. Researchers are working on suitable solutions for the growing market, which now also encompasses the automotive industry. A lot has to happen before a driver can turn the car key in the ignition switch. Borealis is one of the places where this happens.

Brand new plastic for the front fender of the BMW 3 Series

A few things have to be just right before a plastic makes it into a car. This starts with the weight, as the trend is towards lighter vehicles which in turn use less energy. This means that a plastic fender has to be lightweight and yet extremely robust. Additionally, the plastic for the car’s interior should also look good, feel smooth and be as odor-neutral as possible. “Nobody likes sitting in a car which smells like plastic”, says Doris Machl. She is a chemist and Innovation Project Manager at Borealis, one of the world’s leading plastics producers, in which OMV holds a 36-percent stake.

For the front fender of the BMW 3 Series Borealis worked with the manufacturer to develop a brand new plastic which is exceptionally lightweight. The requirements of a plastic are demanding and vary greatly depending on the application. The European market alone produced more than 57 million tonnes in 2013. With continuous growth for more than 50 years, global production in 2013 rose to 299 million tonnes.

Focus on vehicles and packaging

Doris Machl and her colleagues in the R&D department are responsible for optimizing the properties of plastics at Borealis depending on their field of application. As project manager, it’s her job to test and implement new ideas as efficiently as possible. Here it’s important to have people in the project team from production, marketing & sales and research. Research and development activities are carried out in Linz in Austria and at other locations in Finland, France and Sweden. The Innovation Headquarter in Linz is Borealis’ largest research site, with 350 experts from 30 countries researching products for the packaging and automotive industries.

Doris Machl Chemist and Innovation Project Manager at Borealis
Every Golf VII contains 23 kilograms of Borealis. But baby bottles, diapers, cable sheaths and pipes are also produced from plastic materials from Borealis.
Doris Machl, Chemist and Innovation Project Manager at Borealis

New material, sustainable usage

In the Innovation Headquarter in Linz films are exposed to different tensile forces and temperatures.

“We are always looking to find new applications, to develop special products,” says Borealis chemist Doris Machl. “In Linz we carry out small-scale simulations of the real-world conditions a material is subject to before upscaling to our pilot plant and then, ideally, to production.” For example, in the automotive industry fiber-reinforced composites are increasingly replacing other materials. Last year Borealis won the Upper Austria State Award for Innovation for a new type of material, together with its cooperation partner, the center of excellence for timber. “The mix of plastic and wood fibers is robust, lightweight and has the ideal properties to be introduced into the cars of the future,” explains Doris Machl.

In view of the increase in production levels, sustainability is becoming an ever more important research issue. Here a key focus is on making products as recyclable as possible. According to the plastics industry association PlasticsEurope, of which Borealis is a member, 26 percent of plastic waste was recycled in 2012 and another 36 percent was used to generate energy.

More than trade partners: OMV and Borealis

Borealis has consistently turned a profit in recent years, generating a net profit of EUR 571 million in 2014. OMV also benefits from the fact that business is booming, as it has been a Borealis shareholder since 1998 and held a 36-percent stake for the past decade. The majority shareholder is the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), headquartered in Abu Dhabi. In the first half of 2015 alone Borealis contributed EUR 176 million to OMV’s earnings.

However, the two companies are not only linked through the share held by OMV, they are also trade partners. OMV supplies ethylene and propylene to Borealis, the raw materials which Borealis uses to produce plastics. Both companies have production sites in Schwechat near Vienna and Burghausen in Germany. The trade agreement was extended by another eleven years in autumn.

Factbox Borealis

  • Borealis was founded in 1994 and originally focused on Northern Europe. The name “Borealis” is derived from aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.
  • The first head office was in Copenhagen, today it is in Vienna.
  • There are more than 6,500 employees worldwide, with 1,690 in Austria.
  • The company has production sites in Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the USA and Brazil.
  • Borealis has customers in 120 countries.
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