US chemical profile: MTBE

03 May 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

More than 90% of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) production is used in gasoline as an octane booster and oxygenate. It has been favored over ethanol because of its transportability; superior performance in reducing benzene and formaldehyde in gasoline; and its lower volatile organic compound content.

MTBE can also be used to make high-purity isobutylene, which can be further processed to make butyl rubber, highly reactive polyisobutylene, methyl methacrylate (MMA) and other smaller derivatives. MTBE is also used as a solvent and extractant.

In mid-April, US-based Enterprise Products announced that it was shutting down its MTBE unit in Mont Belvieu, Texas, for four weeks. Market sources had reported that the plant experienced issues with pressure, although it was not confirmed when the shutdown would begin. The plant has an estimated capacity of 12,500bbl/day.

The outage will likely tighten the market further, US MTBE sellers said. MTBE is already in short supply, as production was severely cut because of its overall phaseout as a fuel additive in the US.

MTBE consumption showed dramatic growth during the 1990s, mainly owing to to the Clean Air Act Amendments in the US, which mandated the use of oxygenate in gasoline. By 2002, global demand for MTBE was approaching 22m tonnes/year, with the US responsible for nearly 60% of consumption.

Total US MTBE exports in February 2010 stood at 49,770 tonnes, down from 110,672 tonnes in January. Exports in February 2009 totaled 139,746 tonnes, according to the US International Trade Commission.

This decline came amid a three-month turnaround at US-based Huntsman's 17,500bbl/day Port Neches, Texas, plant, which started in mid-January 2010 and finished at the end of March.

Meanwhile, Netherlands-headquartered chemical giant LyondellBasell Industries switched production from MTBE to ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE), taking some 32,000bbl/day of material from the market.

US MTBE prices were reportedly volatile during the week ended Friday April 23. Early that week, prices inched down with weaker European values, but by Friday, prices moved back up and ended in a range of $2.50-2.55/gal ($892-$910/tonne), following the news of the unexpected outage at the Mont Belvieu MTBE production plant, according to global market intelligence service ICIS pricing. The export market was the key driver in the US Gulf production region since US market demand for MTBE is virtually nonexistent.

The reaction of isobutene with methanol over a catalyst bed produces MTBE. The reaction can take place in either a liquid phase or mixed gas-liquid-phase reactor that contains an acidic ion exchange resin. Alternatively, sulfuric acid can be used as a catalyst.

The reaction takes place at a temperature range of 50-90˚C (122-194˚F) and a pressure of 20 bar. The resulting product mixture is then distilled to get high-purity MTBE.

As the future of MTBE as a gasoline additive is under threat, processes have been developed to convert existing units to produce high-octane alkylate products. Italian engineering group Snamprogetti has developed its SP-Isoether process, allowing conversion of an MTBE plant to produce iso-octane. This is done using highly selective isobutylene dimerization without the need for acid alkylation. Meanwhile, US engineering and construction major Kellogg Brown & Root has joined forces with Finland's Fortum Oil and Gas to offer a process called Nexoctane for producing iso-octane from existing MTBE facilities. And US-based Honeywell's UOP, a process technology firm, offers its indirect alkylation InAlk process, which can revamp MTBE plants to produce a high-octane paraffinic gasoline blendstock.

The popularity of MTBE is what led to its downfall. As a result of its increased use as a fuel additive, MTBE was found to contaminate some water supplies in the US, primarily from underground gasoline storage tanks that leaked. Although scientific evidence has shown that drinking water containing MTBE produced no adverse health effects, it leaves an unpleasant taste and gives off an unpleasant odor, even in very small concentrations.

Because of this and in response to consumer concerns, 21 US states, led by California, committed to eliminating the use of MTBE in gasoline in 2005.

Profile last published January 6, 2003

For the latest market prices and reports on more than 120 commodity chemicals from the leading independent pricing and market intelligence service, please visit ICIS pricing

Company Location Capacity
Enterprise Products Mont Belvieu, Texas 12,500*
Huntsman Port Neches, Texas 17,500
LyondellBasell ­Industries Channelview, Texas 12,000
TPC Houston, Texas 1,000
TOTAL 43,000
NOTE: *This production capacity is a market estimation. Enterprise's Mont Belvieu, Texas, plant is a recent
re-toolling of an iso-octane facility. Enterprise itself has not commented on any information regarding this plant.
Source: ICIS Pricing

By: Feliza Mirasol
+1 713 525 2653

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