In the March blog, I expressed the hope that the American Coatings Show in Atlanta would uncover some important new technologies to speed up the process of sustainable development. The event, comprising an exhibition and a technical conference, attracted record numbers of attendees. Having walked the corridors of the exhibition and attended the keynote opening address, I became concerned that interest in sustainability was flagging. However, the technical conference proved that my concerns were unfounded and that there were grounds for optimism.  

Exhibition and Keynote Address

At the exhibition, apart from enthusiastic promotion of waste paint recycling by the ACA through its PaintCare® organisation and GDB International, I was struck by the lack of reference to sustainable development. Even those companies displaying ingredients with improved environmental footprints preferred to promote potential enhancements to coating functionality rather than their upstream sustainability credentials. A very different feel to the European exhibition at Nuremburg a year ago.

In his keynote address, Dr. Charles E Kahle II, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President, Coatings R&D at PPG Industries, focused on the growing demand for energy in the coming years and the role that shale gas will play in delivering cost-competitive new sources of energy and chemical raw materials, particularly in North America. This, he argued, represented a disruptive technology step that would lead to resurgence in manufacturing investment in North America. At the same time, it would catalyse the development of new technologies to enhance energy efficiency in the many sectors served by the coatings industry. He forecast that new energy-saving technologies downstream would require specific protective coating formulations designed to meet the needs of each novel application, and represent significant growth opportunities for the coatings industry.

While this scenario undoubtedly represents a major step forward economically, this blog has yet to be convinced about the benefits to the environmental and social pillars of sustainability. Energy consumption and efficiency are just two aspects of a much broader picture that has to be fully addressed. The coatings industry should take into account all aspects of sustainability before presenting customer industries with novel formulations.

Building on what Dr. Kahle said, this blog believes that, while the coatings sector is meeting the changing requirements of the downstream sectors that it serves, it should be doing so in ways that improve its own sustainable development record. Focusing on enhanced economics and functionality alone will not cut it. Put another way, new coatings products should demonstrate not only economic benefits to both producers and users, but also reduced environmental footprints throughout the entire life cycle, from cradle to grave, and improvements to the social pillar of sustainability as well.  

The Conference

The ACS technical conference presented a very different picture, and I was very encouraged by what I learned. Some sessions were so well subscribed that there were not enough seats in the meeting rooms to accommodate everyone. This was particularly the case at lectures in which bio-renewable materials were under discussion. On several occasions, an idea or a discovery was reviewed that represented a significant innovative step forward worthy of further investigation and development.

It was impossible to attend all the presentations, but the ones that stood out for me were papers on:

  • A castor oil-based polyol emulsion that uses water as the solvent, thereby providing a zero-VOC option (Nuplex);
  • Polyester resins with improved properties manufactured from renewable sources (CorbionPurac); 
  • New thermosetting and thermoplastic latex polymers that act as the solvent and coalesce the system for 2K and 1K coatings (Dow Chemical); 
  • Grafting an acrylic polymer onto an alkyd resin, changing its morphology and avoiding the need for both solvent and surfactant to achieve alkyd dispersion (Arkema);
  • An additive for architectural paints that removes formaldehyde from indoor air (Dow Chemical and Valspar);
  • Recycling tire rubber into a consistent black elastomeric pigment with full hide and a unique feel and lustre (Sun Chemical);
  • Switching surfactant properties on and off by sparging alternatively with carbon dioxide and air (Queens University, Canada);
  • A combination of calcium and magnesium salts that can successfully replace zinc phosphate in anti-corrosive pigments (Heubach).

During one presentation, I was reminded of an R&D colleague I used to work with who continually lectured me on what he described as research ‘Serendipity’ or, put another way, how new ideas often come up by chance in the most unlikely places. I shall not forget asking one presenter at the conference how he came up with his specific discovery that had been totally unexpected. His classic response was ‘because I was crazy and desperate’ to find a solution.

 Evidently, behind the scenes, there are a number of new technologies under development that offer a more sustainable future if they can only be implemented by the coatings industry. To develop a fully sustainable industry, maybe we will all have to get even crazier and more desperate for innovation than we already are, and identify some more of those disruptive technologies needed to make sustainable development a low-cost and pain-free process.