Product Profile: Isopropanol

01 March 2004 00:01  [Source: ICB]

Plant closures herald a new dawn for the European market. However, competitiveness remains key to survival with prices and margins still needing a boost

Isopropanol (IPA), also known as isopropyl alcohol, is a solvent used in many industrial and consumer products, and as an extractant. Outlets include cosmetics and personal care products, de-icers, paints and resins, pharmaceuticals, food, inks 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 oils.

Some chemical compounds are manufactured from IPA, in particular derivative ketones such as methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), isopropylamines and isopropyl esters. Its use as a raw material in acetone production is declining. 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+%.


The market has continued to suffer fromsurplus capacity, but this is all set to change in Europe with the announced closure of BP Chemical’s plant in the UK. The facility at Baglan Bay will cease production on 31 March and BP’s sales and marketing assets are being purchased by ExxonMobil. This follows Shell Chemical’s closure at the end of 2003 of its 90 000 tonne/year plant in Stanlow, UK. The move has been welcomed by the industry which says that it will restore the European market to a more structurally balanced situation.

Demand remains steady but Europe has been under severe pressure from large volumes of cheaper US imports, which has put pressure on domestic prices.


European prices have been declining since quarter two 2003 when numbers moved up to €770-800/tonne on the back of a squeeze in supply. Prices bottomed out in December and early January at around €580-590/tonne before gaining €20/tonne and taking current levels to €600-620/tonne.

The impact of higher feedstock costs, with propylene quarter one contracts rising by €50/tonne, is prompting sellers to continue seeking increases during the quarter in a bid to improve margins. Hikes of about €50/tonne are being sought to lift prices to €650/tonne. However, suppliers concede that increases are meeting with limited success.


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 very small amount of IPA is produced by the hydrogenation of acetone in the liquid phase but this route is only suitable where excess acetone is available.

Health and safety

IPA is a clear, colourless, volatile liquid with a slight odour. It is highly flammable and an explosion hazard as vapours mix well with air, forming explosive mixtures. Flashback can occur as vapours can roll for considerable distances. Vapours irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract and may cause drowsiness and dizziness and it can be absorbed through the skin.


IPA is a mature product in Europe and the US and demand growth will be flat. Any market growth will be in Asia where demand/growth is rated at an annual 2%. The only project officially announced is Deepak Fertilisers and Petrochemicals’ new 70 000 tonne/year plant at Taloja, India, which is planned to be completed by November 2005.

If the market responds to the recent consolidation moves, then cheap debottleneckings are likely to be carried out by the major producers. Domo and Mitsui’s plans to build an 80 000 tonne/year solvents complex, including IPA, at Leuna, Germany, were abandoned in July last year after Mitsui withdrew its support for the project.

Major global isopropanol capacity, '000 tonne/year
Company Location Capacity
BP Chemicals Baglan Bay, UK* 90
Carboclor Campana, Argentina 50
Dow Chemical Texas City, Texas, US 250
Equistar Chemical Channelview, Texas, US 29.5
ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US 340
Lee Chang Yung Chemical Industry Lin Yuan, Taiwan 60
LG Chem Yosu, South Korea 30
Mitsui Chemicals Takaishi, Japan 33
Nippon Petrochemicals Kawasaki, Japan 78
Pemex Petrochemical Salamanca, Mexico 15
PetroChina International Jinzhou Jinzhou, China 50
Rhodia Brasil Paulinia, Brazil 10
Sasol Herne, Germany,
Moers, Germany


Shell Chemical Berre, France
Deer Park, Texas, US
Pernis, Netherlands
Pulau Bukom, Singapore
Sarnia, Ontario, Canada
Tokuyama, Japan 68
* to close 31 March 2004
Source: ECN/CNI

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