Product profile: Isopropanol

05 August 2002 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Demand growth in western Europe is low but higher rates are estimated in central and eastern Europe. New capacity in Germany could negatively affect Europe's supply balance

Isopropanol (IPA), also known as isopropyl alcohol, is a low-cost solvent used in many industrial and consumer products and as an extractant. The European Solvents Industry Group (ESIG) said that in Europe last year intermediates accounted for 32% of consumption, 14% was used as a de-icer, 13% in paints and resins, 9% in pharmaceuticals, 4% in food and 3% in ink and adhesives. It is also used as a solvent for oil and gums and in the manufacture of fishmeal concentrates. Low-grade IPA is used in motor fuels.

Its use as a raw material for acetone production is declining. Several chemical compounds are synthesised from IPA, in particular methyl isobutyl ketone and a range of esters. Different grades are available depending on the end-use. The normal quality of anhydrous IPA is 99+%, while special grades (essence and pharmaceutical) are 99.8%+.


Total production in Europe from BP, Sasol and Shell was 424 010 tonne in 2001, according to ESIG. Sales in western Europe amounted to nearly 363000 tonne last year with exports reaching just over 46 000 tonne.

The market improved in quarter two 2002, following a disappointing first quarter. Supply has tightened with depleted inventories at producers following planned shutdowns and reduced output because of the shortage of propylene feedstock. Imports of blends also continues to be limited. Availability is expected to remain tight through the second half. Demand is brisk and has been aided by the higher price for alternatives such as ethanol and mixed alcohols.

European prices have been eroding since mid-2001, but began to turn around in April after producers' attempts for higher numbers were supported by tighter supply and higher propylene feedstock costs. April levels lifted by E55-70/tonne to E640-690/tonne FD NWE and gained another E20/tonne in May taking the range to E660-710/tonne. Prices in July moved up again to E685-725/tonne. Producers are now looking for a minimum price of E700/tonne and are 'quietly confident' of reaching E750/tonne in September. They say margins are unsatisfactory and need to be improved with prices trailing the E57.50/tonne increase in third quarter propylene costs.


There are two commercial processes to manufacture IPA, both based on propylene. The older method is by 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.

The newer route uses 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 passes under pressure 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 small amount of IPA is produced by the hydrogenation of acetone in the liquid phase but this process is only suitable where excess acetone is available.

Health and safety

IPA is a colourless, volatile liquid with a slight odour which is miscible with water and ethanol. It is highly flammable and poses a moderate explosion hazard as its vapours mix well with air forming explosive mixtures. Flashback can occur as vapours can roll for considerable distances. Vapour is a mild irritant to the eyes, nose and throat and it can be absorbed through the skin.


IPA is a mature product in Europe and the US and demand growth is put at 1-2%/year. Its use in derivatives production has the greatest potential with little or no growth projected for use in solvents. Higher growth rates are forecast for central and eastern Europe, and Asia.

Shell is investing at Deer Park to improve operational reliability but with no increase in nameplate capacity. Domo and Mitsui have completed the feasibility study for an 80000 tonne/year solvents complex at Leuna, Germany, which includes IPA capacity. Startup is expected in the first half of 2004 and output would serve central and east European markets. Players expect the new plant to have a negative impact in Europe which is self-sufficient in IPA.

Major global isopropanol capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity
BP Baglan Bay, UK 100
Equistar Channelview, Texas, US 29.5
ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US 325
Jinzhou Petrochemical jinzhou, China 50
lee Chang Yung lin Yuan, Taiwan 50
LG Chem Yosu, South Korea 30
Mitsui Chemicals Takaishi, Japan 33
Nippon Petrochemicals Kawasaki, Japan 78
Pemex Salamanca, Mexico 15
Rhodia Paulinia, Brazil 9
Herne, Gemany
Moers, Germany

Berre, France
Deer Park, Texas, US
Pernis, Netherlands
Pulau Bukom, Singapore
Sarnia, Ontario, Canada
Stanlow, UK
Sol Petroleo Campana, Argentina 48
Tokuyama Tokuyama, Japan 68
Union Carbide Texas City, Texas, US 250
Source: ECN/CNI

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