Product profile: Toluene

03 December 2004 11:01  [Source: ICB]

Exports to Asia are keeping European markets more balanced. Prices have reached record highs as energy costs soar

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 and about 7% of world demand is from toluene diisocyanate (TDI). Minor uses are found in the production of phenol, caprolactam, nitrobenzene, benzoic acid and benzyl chloride.

There are three grades of toluene: TDI-grade with a purity of 99.9% and nitrate grade at 98.5%, for solvent use and as a feedstock for HDA and TDP plants. In the US there is a commercial grade of 95% purity for gasoline blending and HDA feedstock.


Cefic figures show that west European toluene production in 2003 was nearly 2.2m tonne from a capacity of 2.65m tonne/year. Total actual consumption last year is estimated by DeWitt consultancy at 1.9m tonne, with 970 000 tonne consumed in xylenes and benzene output, 350 000 tonne in solvent applications and 580 000 tonne for other uses, primarily TDA/TDI.

Supply and demand has been balanced by exports, particularly to feed strong Asian markets, and by some gasoline blending. Strong benzene values have kept HDA units operational most of the year. Aral Aromatics commissioned a new 30 000 tonne/year unit in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, last month.

In eastern Europe, DeWitt estimates 2003 output was 846 000 tonne from nearly 1.9m tonne/year of capacity. Demand last year into benzene and xylenes was 236 000 tonne, solvents was 116 000 tonne and other uses accounted for 283 000 tonne.


European spot numbers started climbing in late 2003 and have stayed strong throughout 2004, bolstered by record energy costs as well as strong exports. Spot prices are currently quoted in the range $585-595/tonne fob NWE. Contracts are now mostly settled on a monthly basis. However, agreements are being done on a private and confidential basis and, from quarter one this year, there is no longer a published reference price.


Most toluene is produced from the catalytic reforming of naphtha or from pyrolysis gasoline 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 into aromatics. 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 flashback can occur due to its heavy vapour. It can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract and is a powerful narcotic if inhaled.


DeWitt expects toluene demand in western Europe for benzene and xylenes to lift to about 1.05m tonne in 2004, with other uses climbing to 595 000 tonne. Solvent use will continue to decline slightly.

Strong export demand to feed fast-growing Asian markets is expected to keep Europe balanced in the short term. However, reduced demand will be seen in Europe next year following DSM’s expected conversion/closure of its toluene-based phenol unit in Botlek, the Netherlands.

European toluene capacity, ’000 tonne/year*

Company Location Capacity
W Europe
Aral Gelsenkirchen, Germany 30
BASF Mannheim, Germany 155
BP Dormagen, Germany 130
BPRP Lingen, Germany 60
Cepsa Algeciras, Spain 200
Dow Chemical Terneuzen, N’lands 30
Syndial Porto Torres, Italy 70
ExxonMobil Botlek, Netherlands 260
FinaAntwerp-Olefins Antwerp, Belgium 100
Huntsman Petrochemicals North Tees, ?UK 330
PCK Schwedt, Germany 52
Petkim Aliaga, Turkey 162
Petrogal Oporto, Portugal 170
Polimeri Europa Porto Marghera, Italy 50
Priolo, Italy 240
Shell Godorf, Germany 130
Heide, Germany 125
Stanlow, UK 80
Wesseling, Germany 100
Total Petrochemicals Feyzin, France 40
Gonfreville, France 35
E Europe
Lukoil Neftochim Burgas, Bulgaria 50
MOL Szazhalombatta, Hungary 110
Naftan Novopolotsk, Belarus 60
PC Blachownia Kedzierzyn, Poland 40
PKN Orlen Plock, Poland 90
Romania four plants 360
Russia seven plants 389
Slovnaft Bratislava, Slovakia 86
Ukraine five plants 240
* only plants above 30 000 tonne/year
Source: DeWitt

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