Chemical profile: US MEK

12 July 2013 17:35  [Source: ICB]

Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) is mainly used as a low-boiling solvent for nitrocellulose, acrylic and vinyl surface coatings.

Over 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 also needed for the polymerisation processing of polystyrene (PS), acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and styrene butadiene rubber (SBR).

For most of 2013, the US MEK market has been flat. Oversupply and decreased demand have led to little movement in the market.

In addition, the second quarter of 2013 saw rising imports and falling exports. Data from the US International Trade Commission (ITC) showed a 47% year-on-year decrease in MEK exports for May 2013. MEK imports increased by 69% for the same period.

The trend lines for 2013 are clear: US producers are struggling to sell MEK abroad. Meanwhile, imports continue to rise.

Since MEK is used in plastic resins, coatings and pigments, its use is heavily tied to the US construction sector. Unusual weather conditions in the first quarter of 2013 led to a delay of the start of construction season. The impacts of Hurricane Sandy in the northeast and colder spring temperatures than usual led to a construction slowdown.

However, the US construction market eventually rebounded from those earlier delays, with new housing construction up for most of 2013. That movement, however, has not trickled downstream to the MEK market, as demand for the product remains flat.

US sources have indicated that the MEK market in 2013 is saturated. As a result, prices have fallen several times this year, and appeared to have flatlined at the start of the second half of the year. MEK prices have dropped twice in 2013, and the average price has fallen about 6% from the start of the year. MEK prices dropped in May. Prior to that drop, MEK had not moved since early February, when prices were in the mid-80 cents/lb range.

The main commercial route is the dehydrogenation of secondary butanol. Some companies employ sulphuric acid hydration of n-butene to make the secondary butanol.

The alcohol vapour is fed into a multi-tubular reactor containing zinc or copper oxides as catalysts. The reaction takes place at 400-500˚C and pressures of less than 4 bar. Liquid-phase technology is also employed in Europe using Raney nickel or copper chromate at 150˚C. Hydrogen is flashed off and the condensate dehydrated by fractionation. The MEK phase separates from the water-ketone azeotrope and is distilled.

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

Global consumption of MEK remains flat. As in the US, MEK in Asia has seen a flattening of demand and oversupply. Prices in Asia fell slightly in late June, as buyers in Asia became more cautious because of a seasonal slowdown. In addition, the US dollar strengthened against several Asian curriences in June, prompting buyers in Asia to halt trading.

The MEK outlook for Europe has been dire for the last quarter of 2012 and most of 2013. European distributors struggled in June to sell even partial truckloads of MEK, which they attributed to low demand. European distributors were also heard seeking out emerging markets outside the continent.

In the US, sources have indicated that oversupply of MEK could force producers to lower prices even further, putting overall downward pressure on the market for the rest of the year.

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Author: Andrew Guy

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