Product profile: Propylene glycol

02 September 2002 00:00  [Source: ICB]

European suppliers are struggling to recover margins in a market with excess capacity and slow demand. New investment is planned in the growing Chinese market
Uses

Propylene glycol's (PG) major outlet is in the production of unsaturated polyester resins (UPR) which are used in surface coatings and glass fibre reinforced resins. The second largest consumer is antifreeze where it is replacing ethylene glycol (EG) in de-icing aircraft and as a coolant in the food industry.

Large quantities are consumed in the manufacture of plasticisers and hydraulic brake fluids. It is also used in non-ionic detergents and as a humectant in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, animal foodstuffs and tobacco industries. It is an excellent solvent with outlets in printing inks, alkyd resins, and as an extractant.

Supply/demand

PG production is driven by propylene oxide (PO) availability and extra PG can be produced to balance PO. Europe has excess PG capacity of about 60000-70000 tonne/ year. Demand has been soft in the last 12 months and industry figures show that European consumption in 2001 was 2% down on 2000.

Demand remains flat for technical applications and the UPR sector is not performing as expected with no signs of a recovery in the second half of this year. However, demand for US pharmaceutical (USP) grade (used in food, flavour, pharmaceutical and household products) is still healthy. Producers hope that the start of the antifreeze season in quarter three will boost demand and prices. Two smaller plants in western Europe are expected to close in the next few years.

Product is moving to South America and Asia. However, exports to Asia, particularly China where numbers in early August were heard at $580/tonne cif for bulk, are at horrendously low prices which do not cover production costs, say players.

Pricing
 
Producers managed to reverse in quarter two the downward trend in prices seen since mid- 2001. European prices soared by nearly E100/tonne from E700-720/tonne for technical/industrial grade product in the first quarter to E790-810/tonne in May/June for medium-sized customers. The increase was driven in response to weak margins which were being squeezed by the steep hikes in propylene feedstock costs. Smaller increments were realised in the UK and in some Mediterranean countries.

However, numbers started to slip again in July/August because of the seasonal summer slowdown with the range reported at E740-790/tonne. Producers are looking to raise prices again in September and expect to seek a rise of E40-60/tonne at least. USP commands a premium over technical grade and USP material is about E30-50/tonne higher.

Technology

Commercial production of PG is by the hydration of PO. Di- and tripropylene glycols, as well as small quantities of higher glycols, are also produced. The reaction between PO and water takes place at 200ûC and 1200 kPa pressure. To limit the quantity of higher alcohols formed, the amount of water is controlled to favour the production of PG.

The reaction can be accelerated by the use of acids or alkalis but this makes the separation of the final product more difficult. The reaction mixture is dehydrated by evaporation under vacuum and the various glycols are separated by distillation.

Health and safety

PG is a colourless, tasteless, slightly viscous liquid with little odour which is miscible with water. It is non-corrosive and is combustible, but not flammable, at room temperature. The liquid can irritate the eyes.

Outlook

No new capacity is planned in Europe or the US. Future growth in European consumption is put at GDP rates at best, but will be lower this year as the economic recovery remains fragile and is slower than expected.

The few projects that have been officially announced will be located in China where the complexes proposed by Shell Chemical and Dow Chemical include PG production.

Shell is due to decide this month whether to give the go ahead to its project with China National Offshore Oil (CNOOC) at Huizhou, Guangdong. The complex, which includes a 60000 tonne/year PG plant, is scheduled to go onstream in 2005-06. Dow's plans with Tianjin Petrochemical have been delayed and are yet to receive approval from the Chinese authorities. The complex in Tianjin with 50000 tonne/year PG is unlikely to start up before 2010. A 15000 tonne/year unit is also included in potential projects listed for the Nanjing Chemical Industry Park in Jiangsu province.

European propylene glycol capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity

Europe

BASF

Ludwigshafen, Germany 80

BP

Cologne, Germany 90

Dow

Stade, Germany 130

EniChem

Priolo, Italy 23

Lyondell

Botlek, Netherlands 80
Fos, France 80

Novacke Chemicke Zavody

Novaky, Slovakia 2

Oltchim

Rimnicu Vilcea, Romania 9

Repsol YPF

Puertollano, Spain 22
Tarragona, Spain 30

Sasol

Marl, Germany 18

ZC Rokita

Brzeg Dolny, Poland 4

US

Arch Chemicals

Brandenburg, Kentucky 35

Dow

Freeport, Texas 116
Plaquemine, Louisiana 93

Huntsman

Port Neches, Texas 58

Lyondell

Bayport, Texas 238

Asia

Jin Hua Chemical

Huludao, China 30

Manali Petrochemical

Chennai, India 6

Seraya Chemicals

Pulau Seraya, Singapore 50

SKC Chemical

Ulsan, South Korea 50

Zhejiang Pacific Chemical

Ningbo, China 50
Source: ECN/CNI




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