Since its development in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the use of SAP has revolutionized the diaper industry as diaper manufacturers soon began to design diapers that were thinner, more absorbent and more comfortable than ever before.
SAP is prepared from acrylic acid and a crosslinker by solution or suspension polymerization. The type and quality of crosslinker controls both swelling capacity and the gel module. The global diaper market has traditionally been the largest market for SAP globally, at one point comprising as much as 85% of sales, but recent developments in the adult incontinence market are changing the customer
mix in the market.
“We try to bring up new capacity in markets that are growing fast as well as in non-so-existing markets because there is still growth in places like the U.S. and Western Europe,” says Stefan Nowicki, strategic marketing director, baby care, for Evonik.
In February, Evonik announced a plan to debottleneck its lines, a measure expected to increase capacity by 40,000 tons. The company says it expects its plants in Krefeld and Rheinmünster, Germany, to be most significantly impacted by the measures.
Debottlenecking is the least expensive way of adding capacity, Nowicki adds. In late 2013, Evonik added 80,000 tons of capacity in Saudi Arabia to meet demand in the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and other developing markets.
“We see growth coming from a combination of factors,” he says. “In mature markets it’s more about adult incontinence and this is supposed to be even more significant further down the road. In fact, the adult incontinence market could some day be larger than the diaper market.”
This importance will not only be the result of the size potential of the adult incontinence market as the global population greys, it is also born out of the product size. The larger items require more than double the amount of SAP than its smaller cousin, the baby diaper.
The Long Road
Superabsorbent polymers were first produced commercially in Japan in 1978. First targeted at feminine hygiene items, SAP soon found a place in the diaper market because of its ability to absorb up to 500 times it weight or 30-60 times its volume.
During the past several decades, SAP has increasingly replaced fluff pulp as the main component of the diaper core. Early SAP-containing diapers contained just one to two grams of the material, but this number has increased to 15-16 grams per diaper as the amount of fluff pulp has diminished—some modern diapers have virtually no fluff pulp at all.
This has driven up SAP levels in most diapers until recently. According to executives, the amount of SAP, in terms of grammage, has started to decrease as newer grades of the polymer improve performance, and diaper design improves the liquid management within the SAP. Simply put, not as much SAP is needed to do the same job.
“The SAP is being engineered to more powerfully absorb liquid and the diaper makers are moving the SAP’s position within the diaper to ensure that it is all used,” Nowicki says.
For SAP producers, this has been good and bad. Demand for more complex diapers has created a more value-added marketplace, weeding out the companies that cannot offer this level of performance; however, it has lessened the amount of SAP needed in a marketplace facing an overcapacity situation.
The overcapacity situation of today comes after a significant investment period, which followed a supply drought, caused by a shortage of acrylic acid, SAP’s main feedstock. As acrylic acid producers ramped up capacity, so did SAP manufacturers, creating a global supply excess throughout the supply chain, according to Nowicki, creating a situation where only the top manufacturers, with the most innovative products, can survive.
“We are working on new products all the time,” he reports. “We work on performance, swelling, speed of absorbency and odor control, which is especially important in adult incontinence products. All of this is key. If you do not innovate, things will be particularly bad when capacity gets high.”
And, capacity is high, thanks to moves by many of the world’s largest producers, who increased capacity 13% between late 2012 and 2013, with the top three producers—Nippon Shokubai, BASF and Evonik, who each make more than 500,000 tons of the material each year—comprising 65% of the output.
While production capacity at Nippon Shokubai has dropped due to the shutdown of one of its U.S. plants, the company has increased its capacity in Indonesia significantly, and the company plans to expand in Belgium and Japan in the next couple of years. Meanwhile,
BASF is adding a new site, capable of making 60,000 tons of the material per year, in Brazil by the end of 2016.
On the other hand, Sumitomo Seika Chemicals is starting up a new site capable of making 40,000 tons per year in Japan this spring and has announced it will build a new facility capable of making 59,000 tons of material in Korea next year.
SDP Global plans to operate a new facility making 80,000 tons of material in China by July 2015 and will establish a production base in Southeast Asia in 2017 and in North America by 2018-19. The company expects its capacity will reach 600,000 tons by 2020.
Meanwhile, LG Chemical Company will start making 80,000 tons of SAP in Korea in 2015. Already, this company’s capacity is set to increase 2.5 times in less than two years, from 106,000 tons in February 2014 to 260,000 tons by the end of 2015.
In light of all this expansion, global production of SAP will reach 2.7 million tons by the end of 2015 and 2.8 million tons by the end of 2016. This is creating a situation markedly different from the SAP market of a few years ago, which was described as a seller’s market.
In dollar figures, the global superabsorbent polymers market was valued at $6.06 billion in 2013 and will reach $8.78 billion by 2020, according to a report put out last year by Transparency Market Research. CAGR growth will be 5.5% between 2014 and 2020.
This study found that increasing demand for baby diapers and adult diapers in emerging economies of Asia-Pacific will likely boost demand for SAP in the region over the next six years. Additionally, rising hygiene awareness among the ever-increasing population is estimated to boost demand for superabsorbent polymers in Asia Pacific.
Demand for SAP is expected to be high in Asia Pacific due to growing end-use industries in countries such as China and India. Asia Pacific is anticipated to be the fastest growing market during the forecast period. Superabsorbent polymers are used on a large scale by the hygiene products industry in developed regions such as North America, the largest market for superabsorbent polymers. Tied a number two, Europe and Asia-Pacific each accounted for more than a 25% share of the global volume of superabsorbent polymers in 2013; however, growth in Asia Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing, expanding at a CAGR of 5.4% between 2014 and 2020. The rest of the world, including the Middle East and Africa, is likely to be the second-fastest growing market for superabsorbent polymers during the forecast period.
In terms of product segments, superabsorbent polymers is divided into three types: sodium polyacrylate, polyacrylamide copolymer and others including ethylene-maleic anhydride copolymer, polyvinyl alcohol copolymers, etc. All types of superabsorbent polymers are used in various applications such as sanitary napkins, training pants and diapers. Hence, demand for these polymers is high in the market. Polyacrylamide copolymer is estimated to be the fastest growing segment, due to its non-toxic nature and high water absorbing and retaining property.
Application segments include baby diapers, adult incontinence products, feminine hygiene products and others. Among these, baby diapers is primarily expected to boost demand for superabsorbent polymers in the market. The baby diaper industry accounted for more than a 74% share of the global superabsorbent market in 2013. The market for adult incontinence products was the second largest, which accounted for 224.3 kilotons in 2013. The others segment includes applications that serve agriculture, medical and construction industries, among others.
BASF Bets on SAP
In November, BASF announced it would invest up to $625 million in its SAP platform during the next two to three years to establish droplet polymerization capabilities worldwide by revamping existing plants. The rollout of this new technology underlines BASF’s technology leadership in the market for SAP.
This investment is the culmination of a decade of work by BASF researchers to develop a new technology to optimize the corresponding production processes. The result will be the launch of a new generation of highly innovative SAP under the trademark Saviva. Saviva is expected to become commercially available beginning in late 2016.
Based on its round-shaped particles with mico-pores, Saviva has an innovative liquid distribution mechanism, making it a highly efficient superabsorbent polymer in a diaper core. It has been tested comprehensively in laboratories, in diaper prototypes and with end consumers in home-use tests, and has been met with positive feedback, according to the company.
“The new technology concept enables BASF to provide new performance levels, which are not possible with the current technology,” says Nikki Lei, communications manager for BASF care chemicals. “It allows mass production by gentle polymerization of individual droplets which eliminates gel-cutting, separate drying, and milling steps in the production process. In opposite to the state-of-the-art technology, droplet polymerization technology delivers every single particle out of a single droplet sodium acrylate solution.”
This gives BASF the opportunity to influence particle properties and to design a defined SAP-particle with dedicated properties and a step change in performance. T,his technology platform opens up a completely new dimension for designing superabsorbent polymers.
BASF has now developed a technology concept that enables them to provide with Saviva products new performance levels, which are not possible with the current technology.
Leung says that this type of breakthrough technology is the solution to a market defined by excess supply. “We believe that a breakthrough innovation in the dimension of our new technology platform is the answer on a long market. It will change the market and opens up a complete new dimension for designing superabsorbent polymers and of course to drive further innovations for our customers to make them more successful,” she says.
To expedite this technology’s market entry, BASF has developed a revamp strategy where it will extend and modify existing production sites to enable them to manufacture Saviva. Ultimately, all its sites will make Saviva as well as Hysorb, BASF’s existing SAP product. This revamp will begin in Europe and be closely followed by sites in Asia and the Americas. “The outstanding absorption performance and soft feel of Saviva offer an innovation platform for the development of new hygiene solutions,” says Teressa Szelest, senior vice president of BASF’s global hygiene business. “It is a highly efficient enabler for future generations of diaper designs, offering a new level of comfort and dryness.”
Expecting to see about 5% annual growth for SAP globally, BASF sees growth being driven by disposable income and high rates in emerging markets; demographic shift towards aging population and changing social lifestyles globally.
Meanwhile, challenges facing products are meeting the need for softer, thinner and almost invisible diapers, preventing skin irritation and supporting better mobility. “We see a requirement to further enhance sustainabilty of hygiene products, including of promotion of eco labels and measures to reduce waste.”