HEERLEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - When the United States said after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that no plane could enter its airspace without certain protections against hijack, cash registers rang in this Dutch industrial town.
Scrambling to ensure their cockpit doors were bullet proof, airlines turned to Dyneema, a thermoplastic that is 15 times stronger than steel but light enough to float on water.
Dutch chemical company DSM had at one time almost abandoned Dyneema as a commercial product. Now DSM is hoping it can replicate the success of Kevlar, an aramid fiber made by DuPont Co.
As well as in cockpit doors, Dyneema is being used in some of the same applications as Kevlar, such as bulletproof vests and marine cables. DSM says Dyneema is stronger, lighter and more rigid than Kevlar.
Among customers is the Chinese company producing the armored vests and helmets to be used by police during the Beijing Olympics.
“They are willing to pay for it because they earn back the costs easily,” Jan van den Bossche, an analyst in Brussels at Petercam brokerage, said of Dyneema’s attraction for customers. Van den Bossche estimates it already is one of DSM’s most profitable products.
DSM said in its annual report that sales of Dyneema rose 22 percent in 2007, but it gives few other details for competition reasons.
Like many materials with unusual properties, Dyneema was stumbled upon in a lab and almost forgotten. In 1963, two engineers, Albert Pennings and Ron Koningsveld, were rearranging the molecules of polyethylene using a crystallization process.
Stirring a polyethylene solution mechanically, they found crystals forming on the stirring rods. It was the first time polyethylene crystallized through stirring rather than cooling.
The result was that the molecules were uniformly aligned, leading to a very strong binding interaction between the individual molecules.
“They were just experimenting on a Friday afternoon,” said Christophe Dardel, unit director at DSM Dyneema.
Dyneema was neglected in the intervening years, as DSM — founded as a state-owned mining company in 1902 — focused first on bulk chemicals and then on petrochemicals.
“The technology was almost sold on several occasions. In the sixties, we were a bulk chemical company, there was no place for it in our portfolio,” Dardel said.
The dedication and love of a few engineers kept the product alive. After winning a crucial patent in 1983, DSM management included Dyneema in the list of corporate development programmes and more money was available.
By 1990 DSM decided it would focus on fibers for bullet and impact protection and on ropes and cables, an application it is suited to because it hardly stretches.
“If steel breaks, it has so much energy. For a couple of seconds it goes everywhere. People get killed every year on the docks and ships. If these ropes start going everywhere you don’t want to be in the way,” Dardel said.
At Dyneema’s main test centre in Heerlen, engineers showed how the strength of Dyneema ropes are tested. A machine pulled a rope until it snapped with a loud bang and then dropped harmlessly.
Dardel estimates that about three-quarters of newly-built tankers for the transport of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the next few years will be equipped with Dyneema mooring lines.
Marcelien de Koning and Lobke Berkhout, who won the women’s world sailing championships in the 470 class for the Netherlands in 2005, 2006 and 2007, will use Dyneema ropes during this summer’s Olympic Games in China.
“It took us a while to make a final decision on using Dyneema ropes, but eventually we concluded the ropes can give us that little extra edge on our competitors,” said Jacco Koops, their coach.
In 2001, DSM received unexpected support from the U.S. government. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, Washington ordered new rules for airplanes flying within and to the United States.
“We had the solution and the material,” Dardel said.
DSM is now trying to find new markets, such as lines for kites that are used to pull some container ships to save fuel. It is also exploring its use as a sheathing for the wiring of heart pacemakers, which would reduce the current need to replace them every 10 years or so.
“Dyneema is very important to DSM’s future growth,” van den Bossche said, adding that 200 million euros of DSM’s 2010 target revenue of 1 billion euros from innovation could come from Dyneema.
And, in a move that could take DSM back to its mining roots, its engineers have also found a way to use Dyneema in elevator ropes, which it hopes to introduce in the mining industry.
Reporting by Harro ten Wolde; Editing by Eddie Evans