Product profile: Maleic anhydride

29 September 2003 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Europe is ripe for more consolidation and possible plant closures have been likely for some time. Future growth is being driven by BDO and derivatives

Maleic anhydride's (MA) main use is in unsaturated polyester resins (upr) which account for about 50% of consumption. The major upr markets are in the construction, boat and automotive industries.

The next most important, and fastest growing, outlet is 1,4-butanediol (BDO) and its derivatives tetrahydrofuran (THF) and gamma-butyrolactone (GBL). Other uses are in plasticisers, surface coatings, agrochemicals, lubricants, fumaric acid and malic acid.


The upr sector is said to be rather depressed and producers expect consumption this year will be flat at best, or even decrease slightly by 2-3% on 2002 which recorded growth of about 1%.

Supply is balanced as production at some plants has been reduced either through technical problems, or because high benzene costs have rendered the benzene-based units uneconomic. Polioli has only been running one 18 000 tonne/year line for the last two/three years and Lonza cut output at Bergamo, Italy, to 50% at the beginning of this year.

Import volumes have been seen from Asia, mainly India and Malaysia, which have been encouraged by the weaker dollar, and small amounts have come in from eastern Europe. Suppliers say higher benzene costs in Asia and an improved exchange rate are likely to make it more difficult now for Asian producers to ship product to Europe.

Negotiations failed last year for Lonza's proposed purchase by PPM Ventures, and then by Bear Stearns Merchant Fund. The company has decided to retain the polymer intermediates business as a separate division for now, pending a future sale.


European MA contract prices responded to lower feedstock costs in quarter three (Q3) and dropped to around E870/tonne FD from E925/tonne (molten material) in Q2. Spot material has been trading recently in the low-mid E800s/tonne.

Suppliers are predicting higher prices for Q4 on the back of strengthening feedstock values and expect numbers to get closer to E900/tonne. Margins continue to be squeezed and the sector has not reached reinvestment levels in the past three/four years.


MA is produced by the oxidation of benzene or butane and can be made from butane in either fixed or fluidised bed processes. The fluid bed process has advantages over the fixed bed route such as lower air-to-hydrocarbon concentration in the feedstock and no need for premixing, but has disadvantages including abrasion of the catalyst, conversion rates and by-product formation.

In the fixed bed route, air is mixed with superheated butane and fed to the reactor containing the catalyst. Oxidation is carried out at 400-430oC. The reaction gases are cooled and MA is condensed. Further MA is recovered from the maleic acid in the water scrubber by dehydration. The crude anhydride is purified by distillation under pressure.

High growth for BDO has spurred butane-to-BDO integrated technologies which have been developed by Huntsman and BASF with Davy Process Technology (formerly Kvaerner), and BP/Lurgi.

BOC Gases and Mitsubishi Chemicals have developed a new technology, Petrox, that uses a selective hydrocarbon separation system to recover and recycle unreacted butane and allows MA to be produced at low butane conversion to maximise selectivity and yield.

Health and safety

MA occurs as white or colourless crystals with a pungent odour. It is combustible and reacts violently with fire extinguishing agents. Exposure will irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, and inhalation may cause asthmatic reactions.


The upr sector is mature and likely to turn in future growth at GDP rates. However, players do not expect to see any economic recovery until the second half of 2004 and growth next year could again be quite flat. The BDO sector has stronger growth and global demand is said to still be rising at above 5%/year, and could reach double digit figures in Asia, particularly in China.

Future investment is targeted for Asia, with at least three projects planned in China and an expansion study in South Korea. Saudi International Petrochemical's project in Saudi Arabia will now go onstream in 2006.

No additional capacity is planned, or needed, in Europe, although DSM could add 6000 tonne/year if needed to meet its captive use in fine chemicals. Instead, further rationalisation of old, uneconomic (benzene-based) capacity is expected in the next two/three years.

European maleic anhydride capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity


Feluy, Belgium 135
Ludwigshafen, Germany 3


Moers, Germany 56

Cray Valley

Drocourt, France 15

DSM Fine Chemicals

Linz, Austria 36

Koksno Hemijski Kombinat

Lukavac, Bosnia 10


Ravenna, Italy 50
Bergamo, Italy* 36


Szazhalombatta, Hungary 13

Orgachim JSC

Ruse, Bulgaria 1


Brazi, Romania 12

Polioli, Italy

Vercelli, Italy* 36

Zaklady Azotowe Kedzierzyn

Kedzierzyn-Kozle, Poland 7

* 50% of capacity idled

Source: ECN/CNI

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