Isopropanol (IPA)

24 April 2000 00:00  [Source: ICB]

The immediate outlook for IPA is slow and steady growth but it remains to be seen what impact its listing as a volatile product under the European Commission Solvents Emissions Directive will have on demand


The isopropanol (IPA) market in Europe has shown marginal growth in the past few years, taking into account that demand has reached near saturation point. Annual global growth rates to 2005 are expected to be around 2-3%. In 1999, total world demand was calculated at 1.5m tonne and this figure is expected to move up slightly in 2000 with most of the demand generated in Asia.

In Europe, annual demand growth is projected at around 1-2%/year over the next five years. The availability of US and Asian spot material in Europe has also tightened, resulting in stronger spot demand in quarter two. Strong demand is keeping European operating rates running at close to nameplate capacity. Producers report relatively comfortable inventory levels in quarter two although some scheduled shutdowns will tighten supply. Shell's Pernis unit is not running at full capacity as upgrading work is being carried out at the Moerdijk cracker in the Netherlands from 3 April to 2 June. A Shell company source said that during this period any product shortfall will be covered by its global inventory system. No plant rationalisations have been carried out in Europe with the exception of the closure of Shell's 35 000 tonne/year Tarragona unit in Spain in the early 1990s.



IPA is an excellent low-cost solvent used in many consumer and industrial products. In the US, about 25% is used in cosmetics, personal care and household products, 15% goes into printing inks and surface coating applications, 10% is used in pharmaceuticals, and 20% is used as a raw material for acetone production. IPA is also used as a solvent for oils and gums.

Some chemical compounds are synthesised from IPA, in particular methyl isobutyl ketone and a range of esters. Another application is the manufacture of fishmeal concentrates and low grade IPA can be used in motor fuels.


Two commercial routes to IPA are used. The older method is based on the indirect hydration of refinery-grade propylene using sulphuric acid to form isopropyl sulphate which is then hydrolysed with steam to form sulphuric acid and IPA. The crude IPA is distilled to the desired purity.

A more modern route is the direct hydration of chemical grade (90-99%) propylene avoiding the need for sulphuric acid. Propylene and water are heated and the liquid-vapour mixture under pressure passes into a trickle flow reactor containing sulphonated polystyrene cation ion exchange resins. Alternatively, the reaction can be carried out in the gas phase over a phosphoric acid-based fixed bed catalyst. There is also a liquid phase route employing a soluble tungsten catalyst. The IPA is obtained from the aqueous solution by distillation.

A very small amount of IPA is produced by the hydrogenation of acetone in the liquid phase. This process is only suitable where excess acetone is available.


Company Location Capacity, tonne/year
BP Chemicals Baglan Bay, UK 85
Condea Herne, Germany 75
Moers, Germany 145
Shell Berre, France 110
Pernis, the Netherlands 250
Stanlow, UK 90

Source: ECN

Health & safety

Inhalation and contact with IPA may irritate or burn the skin and eyes while vapours may cause dizziness and suffocation. It may also cause toxic effects if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. IPA is highly flammable and will be easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames. Most vapours are heavier than air and may travel to the source of ignition and flashback. Fire will produce irritating, corrosive and/or toxic gases. For small fires, dry chemical, CO2, water spray and alcohol-resistant foam is recommended.


IPA prices in Europe took a beating end 1999 with a large number of end users holding high inventories. Prices fell an average of DM30/tonne in December and January but producers managed to stop the slide in February when inventory levels started to fall. Prices began to recover from March onwards and producers successfully implemented price hikes. April contracts were finalised at DM1400/tonne FD NWE, a DM150/tonne increase on March. The hefty increase was accepted by consumers who began pre-buying end of March ahead of anticipated price hikes in quarter two, in line with a higher second quarter propylene contract price. IPA producers are intent on seeking further price hikes during this quarter, possibly in June, to recover margins lost on higher propylene feedstock prices. The quarter two propylene contract price rose E110/tonne to E555/tonne FD NWE. The main concern for IPA producers is that higher feedstock costs will erode margins in the next few months. Spot prices have firmed in line with stronger contract pricing with latest business done at DM1350-1370/tonne FD NWE.


The IPA market will maintain slow and steady growth in Europe. IPA was listed as a volatile product under the European Commission Solvents Emissions Directive early last year. European IPA producers maintain that the volatile product listing has not damaged demand but other market players believe in the long term demand growth in Europe will slow.

No new plant capacities or expansions are planned in Europe, as there is enough supply to cover demand in the near future. On a global basis, no new projects have been announced. Any new projects are likely to be in Asia if demand continues to be healthy, producers say.

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