The polymer race is part of a major global transition from metals to polymers as a key material for various applications, which is set to disrupt the existing economic landscape and bring about new economic powers. However, those willing to succeed will need to navigate several challenges at once: innovating the extraction (production) of feedstock (including recycled feedstock), fostering polymer production development (including production of fine and specialty chemicals, as well as private companies' production-related R&D initiatives), consistently developing polymer processing, and making end products without lagging behind the basic polymer industry.
Polymer age: the beginning
Let us first consider a broader perspective to gain a better understanding of the polymer race and its potential. In terms of human history, we are still living in the Iron Age (in a broad sense) as the basic material for making tools has remained the same. This is true not only for simple tools such as shovels and axes, but also for sophisticated industrial equipment. However, it is now increasingly clear that polymers are replacing traditional materials in almost all areas of application. The use of 3D printing to make tools for maintenance work aboard the International Space Station is a strong indication that we are on the brink of an era when advanced synthetic solutions become the backbone of the new technological landscape.
This technological upheaval is inevitable: the range of properties that polymers exhibit is considerably wider than those of conventional materials like iron (and any other substitute materials), which means they can be used in much more diverse conditions. While the exact timing of this transformation and its turning point may be a matter of debate, it is clear that with the accelerated pace of progress it will neither take thousands of years (as it was for the shift from stone to metal) nor several hundred years needed for iron to replace bronze.
The advent of the polymer age does not mean abandoning the use of metals or other materials, just as we have not abandoned the widespread use of stone. However, based on the trend that has emerged over the past few decades, it is generally safe to say that the range of applications for polymers and, consequently, their consumption will continue to grow much faster than for alternative materials. For instance, in the first two decades of this century alone, the polymer market has more than doubled in size (from 220 to 460 million tonnes per year). No other material has exhibited growth rates anywhere near similar levels.
Polymer race has kicked off
The accelerated transition to reliance on polymers has essentially led to what the media dubbed the "polymer race”.
According to a report by Roland Berger, a global consultancy that studied the key disruptions to the global polymer industry, it is now at a strategic juncture with the current seventh disruption caused by a confluence of simultaneous strategic global challenges, including rising geopolitical tensions, supply chain disruptions, re-onshoring and others. Forbes also points out that the construction of polymer production capacities around the world has intensified. Globally, it is becoming a national race among leading countries.
According to a market report by Grand View Research, the global petrochemical industry was worth USD 593 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow to USD 812 billion by 2030. Worldwide consumption of just two key polymers in 2022 stood at 207 million tonnes (42% polypropylene and 58% polyethylene) and is expected to add another 26 million tonnes by 2025.
The construction of new manufacturing capacities has picked up pace. While the US still remains the global leader, China has already secured the position of the second largest producer of basic polymers by consistently expanding its production capacities every year. In 2023, it expects to put on stream production facilities with a capacity of 12 mtpa of polypropylene and more than 5 mtpa of polyethylene. With this rapid expansion, the country is on track to potentially become a net exporter of polypropylene in 2024.
Resource-rich countries have also joined the race, which makes perfect sense: resources are finite, whereas polymer production, taking into account their recycling ad re-use potential, is almost infinite. By 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to allocate more than a third of its current oil output to chemical production, with the country’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, investing in downstream projects worldwide.
Petrochemical companies in India, Vietnam, and Turkey are also expanding their production of synthetic polymers, capitalising on their domestic natural resources.
Polymer race as a marathon: key challenge is not to drop out
If we use sports terminology, the polymer race is best compared to a marathon. For most runners, finishing is the most basic marathon goal. Winning the race is a less realistic objective for many, and only a few set that goal for themselves. Similarly, in the polymer race, it is important not to drop out of the cohort of countries competing for dominance in the polymer age, rather than coming in first.
Simply ramping up polymer production capacities does not necessarily lead to future success, but can result in supply imbalances and overproduction crises. In the current context, there is a need to develop a balanced economy with the polymer industry as its cornerstone and related industries, science, education, and other fields all growing in sync.
Russia: potential to emerge as global leader of polymer age
Despite lagging behind technologically during the Iron Age as a country that was established long after basic technologies emerged, Russia now has the potential to become a global powerhouse of the polymer age.
First, the country has the resources necessary to develop its polymer industry. While polymer production does require considerably more investments than simply extracting and selling hydrocarbons, it holds great potential for the future.
Second, Russia is already nearly self-sufficient in basic polymers (see a study by the Higher School of Economics). That said, its capacities are continuing to grow. The country’s new road map of the petrochemical industry development envisages plans to increase production of bulk polymers from 7.4 to 9.9 mtpa by 2025. This pace is far from what we see in China, but matching it is not mandatory for success. Rather, the focus should be on advancing the processing of basic polymers. In a number of industries (from healthcare to the production of car components), there is a lack of capacities for the production of end products.
Russia has major problems with fine and specialty chemicals, and its self-sufficiency in superplastics is as low as 2%. However, this is a matter of economic feasibility, not technology. For a long time, purchasing specialty polymers from leading global manufacturers remained a cheaper option. This was also encouraged by foreign companies when localising production in Russia. Now there is no such pressure any more, but economic viability remains a question when launching production of polymers with demand not exceeding 1–2 tonnes per year. This can be addressed by granting government support and expanding markets through the economic involvement of neighbouring countries.
Recently, we have seen more fine and specialty chemicals projects kick off. Some examples include a project to produce epoxy binders for protective coatings, engineering plastics, various-purpose glues and fibreglass launched in the Kulibin Special Economic Zone in Dzerzhinsk, Nizhny Novgorod Region, and a polyester fibre production plant launched in Shakhty, Rostov Region.
Third, the technological expertise built back in the Soviet era now comes to play an essential role in economic development. Large chemical and vertically integrated companies are leveraging this expertise to develop their R&D capabilities and expand the product range. The polymer race presents a promising opportunity for making the most out of this legacy, with the ability to push the boundaries of technological advancement as the main benefit.