01 October 2001 00:00  [Source: ICB]

As a major ingredient of phenol, cumene's highest predicted growth rates are in northeast Asia, where new phenol capacity is planned


Cumene is used almost exclusively to make phenol and its co-product acetone. Other uses are as a thinner for paints, lacquers and enamels, as a constituent of some petroleum-based solvents and as a component of high octane aviation fuel. It is also used to make acetophenone, alpha-methylstyrene and peroxides, as well as in the manufacture of polymerisation and oxidation catalysts.


Europe is a net importer of cumene and sources most of its shortfall from the US which has excess capacity. West European production was estimated by DeWitt at just under 1.1m tonne in 2000, a 10% increase on 1999. Russian production in 2000 was about 280 000 tonne, says DeWitt, of which 77% was consumed in phenol and 20% in alphamethylstyrene. Russian phenol growth last year was 23% up over 1999, and 22% of its total phenol production of 156 000 tonne was exported, notes Dewitt. Cumene production in Russia for first quarter 2001 was about 75 000 tonne. European production is expected to be much lower this year because of the collapse in phenol demand mid-year, which has forced cumene output to be reduced and placed margins under pressure.

Players do not expect any improvement in demand in the short term. Rhodia changed to a zeolite catalyst mid-year, but it is not clear yet as to what extent the capacity will be increased. A long-term supply deal with Phenolchemie has prompted Dow to expand capacity to 700 000 tonne/year, which includes switching to a zeolite catalyst. Completion is due by end 2001. Degussa sold Phenolchemie to Ineos in May.


The European merchant market is very limited, with most major cumene players integrated into downstream phenol production. European and US prices are fixed according to formulae which factor in benzene and propylene feedstock costs, and which are agreed on a case-by-case basis. In the US, September contracts settled at 19.5 cent/lb, up on the August contract price of 17.5 cent/lb.


The original process was propyl alkylation of benzene using sulphuric acid as the catalyst. However, this process suffered from complicated neutralisation and recycle steps as well as corrosion problems. Modern technology is based on the reaction of propylene and benzene either in the liquid or gas phases. These processes initially used solid phosphoric acid (vapour phase) or aluminium chloride (liquid phase) catalysts.

In recent years, production economics have been radically changed by processes that use zeolite catalysts. There has been a rapid shift, particularly in the US, to zeolite-based systems, which offer lower costs through high benzene-to-cumene selectivity, high purities and the ability to regenerate the catalyst. A further advantage is that the capacity of existing plants can be increased without debottlenecking due to increased catalyst conversion efficiency. A further development has been the combination of the catalytic reaction with distillation in a single column using the heat from the exothermic reaction in the distillation, reducing the amount of energy required.

Health and safety

Cumene is a colourless, flammable liquid with a sharp, penetrating gasoline-like odour. It is insoluble in water but soluble in ethanol, ether and benzene. It is a fire and explosion hazard, above 31ûC explosive vapour/air mixtures may be formed and there is a risk of flashback from vapours. Cumene is stable at room temperature, but must be kept away from oxidising agents. It is a skin and eye irritant and excessive exposure can cause headache, dizziness and narcosis. Long-term exposure has been reported to cause liver enzyme effects.


Growth prospects for cumene are tied entirely to phenol and its derivatives, particularly polycarbonate which is forecast to show strong demand growth through 2005. Average growth rates for cumene in western Europe are forecast by DeWitt at 3.4%/year over the next five years, with similar sized growth predicted for the US.

Higher growth, possibly at 6-7%/year, is forecast in northeast Asia due to integration with new phenol units starting up in China, Taiwan and Korea by 2005. No new plants are planned in Europe and the US. Taiwan's Chang Chun will start up a 280 000 tonne/year unit in 2002.


Company Location Capacity
Western Europe
Borealis Porvoo, Finland 185
BP* Marl, Germany 250
Domo Caproleuna Leuna, Germany 200
Dow Terneuzen, Netherlands 400
EniChem Porto Torres, Italy 350
Priolo, Italy 290
Ertisa Huelva, Spain 430
Huntsman Wilton, UK 135
Rhodia Roussillon, France 230
Veba Gelsenkirchen, Germany 500
Eastern Europe
Carom Borzesti, Romania 60
Ethanol-Samara Samara, Russia 115
Kazanorgsyntez Kazan, Russia 98
Lukoil-Neftochim Burgas, Bulgaria 45
Omsk Kauchuk Omsk, Russia 100
Orgsteklo** Dzerzhinsk, Russia 65
Petrobrazi Ploiesti, Romania 115
PKN Orlen Plock, Poland 68
Saratovorgsintez Saratov, Russia 67
Slovnaft Bratislava, Slovakia 55
SSME Azot Severodonetsk, Ukraine 30
Ufaorgsyntez Ufa, Russia 165
*leased to Phenolchemie; ** mothballed
Source: DeWitt


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