Product Profile: Butanediol

01 September 2003 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Excess capacity still holds the sector to ransom with no change in the medium term. Future investments may focus on derivatives as new processes eliminate stand alone BDO plants

1,4 Butanediol (BDO) is primarily used as a chemical intermediate. The highest volume derivatives are tetrahydrofuran (THF) with 35-40% of total demand, followed by polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) - an engineering plastic - with around 30%, and gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) derivatives with 14%.

THF is used to produce polytetramethylene ether glycol (PTMEG) used mainly in Spandex fibres, polyurethane elastomers (accounting for some 12% of demand), and copolyester ethers with 3% of demand. Other uses include solvents, coating resins, and pharmaceutical intermediates which account for 3% of total demand.


The industry still has sizeable overcapacity following several additions in the late 1990s, a trend which has continued into the new millennium. With the startup of Lyondell's plant in Botlek, Netherlands, last year, global capacity is now about 1.2m tonne/year.

Capacity utilisation in 2002 was around 70%, but rising. Nexant Chem Systems says world demand was 790 000 tonne last year and this is forecast to reach maybe 813 000 tonne by the end of 2003. Demand in Europe has weakened in quarter three due to seasonal and exchange rate effects, with reduced consumption into PBT due to the loss of Asian export business.


Prior to the entry of Sisas in 1998 and the proliferation of Asian projects, list prices lay in the $2200-2500/tonne range. However, the aggressive entry of Sisas sparked a price war with prices collapsing to the $1250-1450/tonne range. Prices have since strengthened to a modest extent, but remain well below pre-1998 levels.


In 1995 the Reppe process, where acetylene is reacted with formaldehyde and then hydrogenated, was dominant. Today acetylene accounts for only about 42% of capacity.

The first non-acetylene route was developed by Mitsubishi Chemical using butadiene as feedstock. The process is tuneable to give either or both BDO and THF. Later developments include Lyondell's process, which uses propylene oxide as feedstock.

In the early 1990s, Davy Process Technology (formerly Kvaerner) licensed its first BDO plants based on the esterification of maleic anhydride followed by hydrogenation. In 2001, BP Chemicals and Lurgi commercialised its Geminox process which combines BP's catalytic oxidation of butane in air using a fluidised bed with Lurgi's fixed bed fatty acid hydrogenation technology.

The latest innovation in BDO is the development of a biotransformation technology. A collaboration of US research organisations has developed a fermentation process to convert glucose into succinic acid which can be converted into BDO using a suitable catalyst. The challenge for this process will be whether it can be both operated at world-scale, ie around 100 000 tonne/year, and remain cost-effective.

Health and safety

BDO is a colourless, viscous liquid. It is combustible and reacts with strong oxidising agents. It can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract. Acute inhalation or ingestion can lead to unconsciousness.


Demand growth will average 5.2%/year over the next five years, predicts Nexant Chem Systems, which cautions this could be an underestimate with the Chinese market still embryonic and with tremendous growth potential. In the medium term, China looks set to support a number of new investments in BDO derivatives.

Future investments could be in more multi-product units like BASF/Petronas in Malaysia or THF and GBL specific in the right location. Nexant Chem Systems stresses that technologies based on maleic anhydride/acid can be designed for a given output of BDO, THF and/or GBL and there is no longer the need to build new BDO as a platform to subsequently convert it to THF or GBL. BASF has announced an 80 000 tonne/year THF (from n-butane) project in China due for completion in 2004.

The industry is likely to remain in oversupply and some further capacity rationalisation is possible. Global markets are expected to come into balance around 2010. BASF/Petronas' 100 000 tonne/year plant in Kuantan, Malaysia, is currently undergoing testing prior to startup. Gulf Advanced Chemical Industries' 75 000 tonne/year unit in Saudi Arabia is now planned for 2006.

Global butanediol capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity



Feluy, Belgium 70
Ludwigshafen, Germany 190


Marl, Germany 90


Botlek, Netherlands 125



Geismar, Louisiana 135


Lima, Ohio 65


LaPorte, Texas 110


Channelview, Texas 55



Ulsan, South Korea 50


Ichihara, Japan 25

Dairen Chemical

Kaohsiung, Taiwan 130

Korea PTG

Ulsan, South Korea 30

Mitsubishi Chemical

Yokkaichi, Japan 50

Nan Ya Plastic

Chia-yi, Taiwan 40

Shandong Shengli Oilfield Petrochemical

Dongying, China 10

Shanxi Sanwei

Shanxi, China 25

TCC Chemical

Chang-hua, Taiwan 30
Source: Nexant Chem Systems

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