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ACLE 2019 Onsite Interview: Elkem – Semi organic, semi mineral. Flexible, resistant and durable: discover silicones
Véronique Saunier | 15 November 2019

Established in 1904, Elkem is one of the world's leaders in fully integrated silicone manufacturing with operations throughout the silicone value chain from quartz – from which silicone is obtained -- to downstream silicone specialties. Headquartered in Oslo, the company’s 27 production sites around the world ensure proximity to customers and serve very diverse markets, from energy to cosmetics, from electronics to automotive manufacturing, construction, health and personal care. Extremely versatile, silicones are widely used in people’s daily lives and in countless applications.

One of these markets and applications is leather, for which silicones are a useful complement. “Silicone is not competing with leather but complementing it,” explains Elkem’s Global Business Manager, Textile Coating, Pierre Defaux. Silicones enhance the look, feel, water-resistance and durability of leather products. “Tanned leather treated with appropriate silicone is made permanently waterproof while maintaining its breathability,” assures Defaux. One of the company’s products dedicated to leather is the Bluesil™ FLD 1669 carboxy-silicone that renders leather permanently waterproof, yet breathable.

By extension, Bluesil™ Textile Coating Silicones (TCS) are also a suitable alternative for outdoor furniture, boat and automotive upholstery as well as for medical and healthcare equipment and furniture such as examination tables and dentist armchairs. A silicone coating can provide different textures and special effects such as reproducing the grain of leather. Silicones do not melt, are UV-resistant and resilient to tough conditions; furthermore, they can be manufactured to be stretchy, and are less stiff than plastic, according to Defaux.

“Silicones can be processed in a clean and efficient way, are exclusively solvent free and conform to environmental standards,” Defaux adds. “We want people to realize the potential of silicones and to understand that they are different from PU and PVC.” Silicones’ emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are also potentially less harmful than emissions caused by PU and PVC, especially when they burn.

Silicone comes from quartz that is chemically transformed into silicone polymers, with a mineral backbone and further grafted with organic functions. “We manage to produce regionally what is needed regionally,” Defaux says.

This is the case in China, where Elkem’s operations are fully integrated from quartz to finished products. China is Elkem’s most important market and largest venture thanks to several acquisitions.  With 3,000 employees, it is also where the company hires the largest number of people.  

In Asia, the company is also considering expanding in India which is a very promising market according to Defaux.

Elkem’s business model is based on prototyping services. “Give us a blank material and we will show you how to reach the goal you are aiming at. We carefully listen to our customers and understand their requirements. We then manufacture the right products, supplying them with customized formulations and unique silicone technology solutions,” Defaux explains.

Operating and developing innovative solutions in so many industries entails considerable Research and Development efforts. An average of three percent of the turnover and a significant proportion of the company’s workforce is dedicated to R&D, according to Defaux.  “The idea is to constantly provide new material for technical applications and to focus on performance and functionalities,” he concludes.