Chemical Profile: Europe MEK

21 June 2013 09:53  [Source: ICB]

Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) is mainly used as a low-boiling solvent for nitrocellulose, acrylic and vinyl surface coatings. More than half of global demand for MEK comes from the paints and coatings industry. Other uses include rubber-based industrial cements, low-temperature bonding agents and as an azeotropic separation solvent for printing inks.

MEK is a solvent that is also needed for the polymerisation processing of polystyrene (PS), acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR).

The European MEK market is over-supplied because of weak demand caused by the poor economic environment in Europe. European distributors are facing competition from producers, who are targeting both larger and smaller buyers, with some distributors claiming they are being cut out of the market. Distributors have often struggled to sell full truck loads of material throughout 2013, with buyers requesting partial or combination loads. However, producers in Europe still claim that MEK demand levels are satisfactory given the tough regional economic conditions.

End-use consumers in the construction sector have not been purchasing as much MEK because the winter-like weather conditions seen across Europe throughout the first and second quarters led to a delayed start to buying activity from the construction industry.

European MEK prices spiked in 2011 following the 11 March earthquake in Japan which damaged the region's largest MEK facility. European-produced material was sent to Asia to supply demand in the region, and European prices rose to €1,900-2,400/tonne free delivered (FD) northwest Europe (NWE), where they remained until July that year.

Prices have trended mostly downward since 2011, with some relief in March 2012 because of seasonal demand. 2013 prices were mostly stable to soft, though they have fallen through May because of public holidays in Europe impacting demand further. June MEK prices are €1,100-1,200/tonne FD NWE.

The main commercial route is the dehydrogenation of secondary butanol. The alcohol vapour is fed into a multi-tubular reactor containing zinc or copper oxides as catalysts. The reaction occurs at 400-500˚C (752-932˚F) and pressures of less than 4 bar.

Liquid-phase technology is also used in Europe, using Raney nickel or copper chromate at 150˚C. Hydrogen is flashed off and the condensate is dehydrated by fractionation. The MEK phase separates from the water-ketone azeotrope obtained and is distilled.

A new technology involves the direction oxidation of n-butene in solution using palladium and cupric chlorides as catalysts. MEK can also be made as a by-product in butane-based acetic acid manufacture.

Global MEK supply is constrained by a shortage of feedstock and plant turnarounds in Asia in 2013, but weak global economics have continued to weigh on demand for derivative applications such as paint and coatings.

Several northeast Asian producers are operating their plants at reduced rates because of a shortage of feedstock butylene (C4) and a spate of maintenance shutdowns at Chinese facilities in the second quarter of 2013.

Regional supplies have continued to outstrip demand. Consumption is curtailed by a slowdown in the construction and manufacturing sectors. Competition from lower-cost alternatives such as ethyl acetate (etac) added to the weak demand conditions.

In Europe, demand has remained weak for most of the second quarter, although some participants hope that better weather in June will help to boost demand in the coat ings and construction sectors. In the US, solvents producers are likely to be aided by tight supply in some markets. After a slow start, demand is expected to pick up in the second half of 2013, sources said. US MEK supply and demand is steady but soft, and some price weakness has been seen in the first quarter.

By: Matt Tudball
+44 208 652 3214

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