Product profile: toluene

03 March 2003 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Demand levels are stable at present but the introduction of the Auto Oil 2 directive in 2005, which will reduce the content of aromatics in gasoline, could lead to a glut of toluene and xylenes

Toluene is used in large quantities as an octane booster in gasoline but most of that portion is never removed from refinery streams. Its major chemical use is to make xylenes (and benzene) via disproportionation (TDP) or benzene via hydrodealkylation (HDA) processes. About 16% is used to make solvents, although this outlet is declining because of stricter emissions laws. About 8% of world demand is from toluene diisocyanate (TDI) used in polyurethane foams. It also has minor use in phenol and caprolactam production, and is used as a chemical intermediate to make nitrobenzene, benzoic acid and benzyl chloride. There are three grades: TDI-grade with a purity of 99.9%; nitration grade at 98.5% for solvent use and as a feedstock for HDA and TDP plants; and in the US, there is a commercial grade of 95% purity for gasoline blending and HDA feedstock.


DeWitt consultancy estimates that production in western Europe was just under 2.07m tonne last year. This is slightly down on 2001 when production reached 2.12m tonne, according to Cefic's figures. Production for the region this year is forecast by DeWitt to attain 2.14m tonne. Imports into western Europe are between 120-150000 tonne/year.

East European production is estimated by DeWitt at 649000 tonne in 2002, up on 2001's level of 565 000 tonne. Output in 2003 is expected to be 677000 tonne.

The west European market is currently fairly balanced with no shortage of product. Earlier production problems have been resolved and imports from the US and Canada to cover the shortfall have dried up. Strong benzene values have kept HDA units operational this year.


Current European spot prices are around $460/tonne fob NWE. Numbers have been pulled up from $350-360/tonne in January by rising benzene prices and strengthening gasoline values. However, spot prices are notional with little buying interest. The quarter one contract price rose by E30/tonne to E355/tonne.


Most toluene is produced from the catalytic reforming of naphtha or from pyrolysis gasoline (pygas) co-produced in the steam cracking of liquid feeds. In the catalytic reforming process, a hydrocarbon mixture rich in aromatics is passed over a dehydrogenation catalyst. After removing light hydrocarbon gases by fractionation, the reformate is sent to a tower where an aromatic-rich fraction is obtained. Toluene is recovered from the middle cut by azeotropic or extractive distillation, or more usually by solvent extraction.

BP/UOP's Cyclar process converts butanes and propanes in LPGs into aromatics. One commercial plant using the technology has been built in Saudi Arabia.

A very small amount of toluene is still produced from light oil formed by the carbonisation of coal.

Health and safety

Toluene is a clear, mobile liquid with a sweet, pungent odour. It is highly flammable and burns with a sooty flame and flashback can occur due to its heavy vapour. It is an irritant to the eyes, skin, nose and lungs and is a powerful narcotic if inhaled. It is not considered to be carcinogenic.


Growth in western Europe is low and is expected to average only 1%/year over the next five years, says DeWitt, while east European markets are forecast to show average growth of 5%/year.

The major issue for Europe is the Auto Oil 2 directive which comes into force in 2005 and which could spur huge structural change in the toluene market. A recent study said that the new regulations, which cut gasoline's aromatics content to a maximum level of 35%, could see up to 5m tonne/year of extra toluene and xylenes flooding the market.

European toluene capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity

Western Europe


Priolo, Italy 100


Gelsenkirchen, Germany 30


Feyzin, France 50
Gonfreville, France 40


Mannheim, Germany 130


Cologne, Germany 100


Algeciras, Spain 200


Porto Torres, Italy 60


Botlek, Netherlands 245


Antwerp, Belgium 100


Wilton, UK 340


Schwedt, Germany 52


Aliaga, Turkey 15


Oporto, Portugal 140

Polimeri Europa

Porto Marghera, Italy 50


Godorf, Germany 140
Stanlow, UK 80

Shell & DEA Oil

Heide, Germany 125
Wesseling, Germany 100


Lingen, Germany 60

Eastern Europe


Pitesti, Romania 60

Borzesti Petrochemical

Borzesti, Romania 50


Rijeka, Croatia* 70
Sisak, Croatia* 90

Lukoil Neftochim

Burgas, Bulgaria 50


Hungary 110

Pavlodar Oil

Pavlodar, Kazakhstan 200

PC Blachownia

Kedzierzyn, Poland 40


Ploiesti, Romania 200


Constanta, Romania 50

PKN Orlen

Plock, Poland 90


Blachownia, Poland 40


Bratislava, Slovakia 80


two plants 400


seven plants 400


five plants 280

*operational status unknown **total national output

Source: DeWitt

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