Acrylic acid has traditionally been used as the raw material for acrylic esters – methyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, butyl acrylate and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate. These bulk acrylates were originally used to produce solvent-based acrylic resins but environmental concerns over solvent use led to the development of water-based acrylics. Applications for water-based acrylics are primarily in decorative, masonry and industrial coatings but other uses include adhesives, paper and leather coatings, polishes, carpet backing compounds and tablet coatings.
Another major use for acrylic acid is the manufacture of polyacrylates which are used as thickeners, dispersants and rheology controllers. Acrylic acid is also employed as a comonomer with acrylamide in anionic polyacrylamide and to produce hydroxyacrylates for use in industrial coating formulations.
From the mid-1980s, two new applications - superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) and detergent polymers - have emerged. SAPs are cross-linked polyacrylates with the ability to absorb and retain more than 100 times their own weight in liquid. They have experienced very strong growth, primarily in baby diapers (nappies), although the US and West European markets have now matured. SAPs account for over 30% of world acrylic acid consumption.
A new application for SAPs is soaker pads used in food packaging. In 2007, the US Food and Drug Adminstration authorised SAPs in packaging with indirect food contact for poultry, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.
Detergent polymers are essentially homopolymer polyacrylates and copolymers of polyacrylic acid and maleic anhydride that can be used with both zeolites and phosphates in washing powder formulations. They grew strongly in Western Europe from the mid-1980s as phosphate-based detergents were phased out, and more recently, their use in the US has increased. However, the move to compact formulations in washing powders and a slowdown in phosphate replacement has slowed the growth of these polymers.
World demand for crude acrylic acid is forecast by US-based consultants SRI Consulting to grow at 3.7%/year during the 2006-2011 period. Demand for glacial acrylic acid is forecast to increase at about 4%/year in this period, primarily due to the growth in SAPs. SRI Consulting estimates demand for commodity acrylates to grow at 3.7%/year.
In western Europe, growth is much slower at just 1.6%/year but new capacity has been added. In 2006, StoHaas and Arkema increased the capacity of their plants in Germany and France. BASF is carrying out a 160,000 tonnes/year expansion in Antwerp, Belgium, due for completion in late 2008.
In the US, consumption of acrylic acid grew by 3.4%/year in the 2002-2007 period, buoyed by peak growth years in 2002 and 2003. However, growth slowed to about 2%/year in the following three years and is now only predicted to grow at 1.6%/year through to 2011.
US demand is therefore predicted to grow from 1.17m tonnes in 2007 to 1.24m tonnes in 2011, according to ICIS Chemical Business (ICB). Exports in 2007 were 61,000 tonnes in 2007 while imports were negligible.
With the downturn in the US construction industry in 2008, demand for architectural coatings and other acrylic acid-based products used by the building trades will be down by perhaps 5-10%. Recovery in this sector is not anticipated until 2010.
US consumption of polyacrylic acid for SAPs is expected to grow by 0.5%/year as a result of sector saturation. However, this could improve if SAP use in food packaging is widely adopted. Consumption of commodity acrylate esters will grow by 2.1%/year.
China has been the high growth market for acrylic acid for some years with demand growing at 8%/year. In 2007, China produced nearly 700,000 tonnes of acrylic acid, according to China Chemical Reporter. With capacity growing faster than demand, imports have been falling from 110,000 tonnes in 2003 to 45,000 tonnes in 2007. Meanwhile exports of acrylic acid have increased from 1,000 tonnes in 2003 to 23,000 tonnes in 2007.
(Updated: November 2008. Sources: ICB Chemical Profile, 4 August 2008)
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Acrylic acid became commercially available when routes based on the reaction of acetylene with water and carbon monoxide, or an alcohol and carbon monoxide to give acrylic acid, were developed. Another early process was the reaction of ketene, obtained by the pyrolysis of acetone or acetic acid, with formaldehyde. All these processes are now obsolete.
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