30 June 2003 00:00 [Source: ICB]
Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) is an acrylic polymer available as a resin or sheet with high ultraviolet (UV) resistance. About two thirds of consumption is in sheets produced by extrusion or casting, while the remainder is moulded into various shapes. PMMA's primary use is in car headlamps and tail lights.
The second largest use is in construction (pool and sanitary ware, architectural fittings) and lighting applications. Other uses include household appliances, optical media (DVDs, lenses), electronics, mobile phone displays, cosmetics packaging, toys, pens and furniture.
Western Europe accounts for about one third of world production, as does the US and Asia. Supply in Europe is tight as availability of methyl methacrylate (MMA) feedstock is extremely short and producers say this has constrained output of PMMA. Players expect MMA will continue to be tight, putting pressure on PMMA prices and margins.
Demand is said to be reasonable. Consumption of extruded material is seeing strong growth in sound proofing and Barlo Plastics invested in a new extrusion line last year in Mainz, Germany. Cheaper imports from Asia, mainly Thailand and South Korea, are available in Europe, helped by the weak dollar.
European contract prices for standard grade material moved up in quarter two to E2.00-2.35/kg from E1.85-2.20/kg in quarter one, according to ICIS-LOR, driven by increases in the cost of MMA feedstock. Players say margins are still under pressure and they have only partially recovered some of the MMA price rise. Asian export prices are around $1400/tonne cif.
PMMA is produced from the homogeneous or heterogeneous polymerisation of MMA and several commercial processes are in operation. MMA polymerisations are usually catalysed with organic peroxides and the heat of reaction is tremendous, typically 57.7kJ/ mol, so heat removal is vital and reactors are often fitted with external circulation cooling lines, notes Nexant Chem Systems.
For glazing applications, some MMA can be pre-polymerised in a continuous stirred tank reactor and then the resulting viscous liquid or syrup, with around 5% PMMA, is fed into a series of flat glass plate-like moulds at moderate temperature. This kind of batch operation is very cumbersome so continuous polymerisation/cast technologies also operate. Belt polymerisation processes operate where the MMA/PMMA syrup is injected between continuous highly polished metal belts.
Continuous and batch solution processes are also known. Batch processes favour the production of much higher molecular weight polymers. Emulsion polymerisations in batch mode are usually used for copolymers. Recent developments include anionic polymerisation and metallocene catalysts.
Health and safety
PMMA is available as a white powder or clear plastic sheet. It is stable and non-hazardous, but incompatible with strong oxidising agents. It is combustible. In powder form, it is harmful by ingestion or inhalation.
Demand growth in Europe is put at GDP rates, or no more than 2-3%/year. Eastern Europe will see higher consumption growth, although it is growing from a small base. The biggest growth potential is in optical media, such as DVDs. Producers say PMMA offers several advantages over the current material, polycarbonate (PC), such as better optical performance and data storage, and it is also scratch resistant, unlike PC. They believe PMMA will gain a significant share of the DVD market from PC. However, a producer cautioned that unless MMA's cost position can be driven down, PMMA will not be able to compete effectively against PC and its growth could also be capped by other polymers, such as glycol modified polyethylene terephthalate.
Asia, particularly China, is the strongest and fastest growing region and demand has been growing at double-digit figures, although it is not expected to reach these levels now. Two particular applications are driving growth in Asia, namely light guide panels for LCD flat screens and artificial marble.
Most of the future investment is slated for Asia, which has a deficit of PMMA, with much of it planned in China to take advantage of the rapid growth in local consumption. Taiwan's Chi Mei is mulling a 30000-50000 tonne/year plant in Jiangsu, China. Lucite is also considering plans for a new plant in China, with a possible capacity of at least 30000-40000 tonne/year, next to its MMA project in Caojing, which is due in 2005. Japan's Kuraray is studying an MMA/ PMMA project in China for post-2005.
Sumitomo Chemical is also considering a third MMA/PMMA project and is studying several locations across Asia including Singapore, China and Taiwan. LG's expansion by 20000 tonne/year to 50000 tonne/ year at Yeochun, South Korea, is due onstream this year.
No new plants are likely to be built in western Europe. Lukoil-Neftekhim plans a 25 000 tonne/year plant in Saratov, Russia.
West European PMMA capacity, '000 tonne/year
|Rho, Milan, Italy||*||polymer/sheet|
* total capacity is 100 000 tonne/year
na = not available
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