Demand continues to outperform ldPE and hdPE and the strong growth is set to continue. Investment in Europe is limited as cheap feedstock lures players in the Middle East
Linear low density polyethylene (lldPE) is a thermoplastic that in many applications replaces its predecessor, low density polyethylene (ldPE), or is used in blends with ldPE. In particular, lldPE’s short chain branching gives it higher tensile strength, puncture and anti-tear properties, making it especially suitable for film applications.
Other uses include injection moulding products and wire and cable. Metallocene-based lldPE resins are penetrating the film and packaging markets due to their enhanced physical properties, while catalyst developments should improve their processability.
The European market has tightened on the back of good demand and tight supply after various production problems in quarter four. Sources say demand continues to be quite strong after registering growth of 6-7% last year.
As well as tight polymer supply, reduced C4 availability in Europe and the Middle East has limited the output of butene grade lldPE. Production volumes in the Middle East are said to be low and very little is currently being exported to Europe. Available product is being pulled into Asia where markets are also tight and demand and prices are strong.
Producers expect Europe to remain tight during the first half of this year. They say stocks are low and continue to fall.
European suppliers have managed to lift prices in January by about €80/tonne to €780-820/tonne. A further €100/tonne increase has been posted for February business. Prices surged early last year but fell in the second quarter as cheaper imports and poor demand hit the market. Prices started to pick up again in August and stayed largely flat to the end of the year. Players say margins remain poor and still need to be improved.
The London Metal Exchange plans to launch futures contracts for lldPE (and polypropylene) in quarter four, a move not welcomed by some who believe it may increase volatility and add another level of complexity to current pricing mechanisms. Others believe it will enable the industry to respond better to price volatility.
LldPE is produced by adding alpha-olefins (butene, 4-methyl-pentene-1, hexene or octene) during ethylene polymerisation to give a resin with a similar density to ldPE but the linearity of high density polyethylene (hdPE). Solution, slurry or gas phase processes are used and many processes can swing between lldPE and hdPE production, although many plants tend to be dedicated to one of the two resins.
The introduction of metallocene catalysts has enabled the production of resins with narrow molecular weight distribution giving much improved physical properties. The latest generation metallocenes have overcome the poor processability problems and can produce resins with properties similar to high pressure ldPE. Metallocene materials hold a 10% share of the market at present, mostly in Europe and North America with Asia catching up quickly, and global use is tipped to grow by about 20%/year in the short term.
Several companies, including Borealis and Equistar, are also developing non-metallocene single site catalysts (SSCs) for lldPE. Players believe that the use of SCCs in a bimodal technology can bring great flexibility to the producer and better processability to the converters.
Health and safety
LldPE is available as a whitish powder or pellets. It is not combustible but gives off dense smoke when burning. Flammable mixtures can be formed in air during a fire.
Future demand growth in Europe is put at 5-6%/year as lldPE continues to penetrate ldPE markets and metallocene uptake expands. Annual demand in Europe is tipped to rise by about 2m tonne to around 4.5m tonne over the next decade.
Most future investment in Europe is likely to be on a scrap and build basis as the region cannot compete with the Middle East’s access to cheap feedstock. Borealis is building a new 350 000 tonne/year plant in Schwechat, Austria, and startup is due in late 2005. It will then phase out production of two old ldPE lines and an hdPE line at the site. The company is also expanding capacity at Porvoo, Finland, by 60 000 tonne/year later this year. Huntsman says its plans for a swing hdPE/lldPE plant at Wilton, UK, are still active and a final decision is due to be made by mid-2004.
Petrokemya’s new 400 000 tonne/year unit in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, is scheduled to start up in quarter one and several projects are being implemented in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) for post-2005. Most of this new volume is targeted for fast growing Asian markets but exports to Europe will continue to grow. However, players say that the rising level of imports will not have a major detrimental effect on Europe as domestic capacity growth will be slower than that for consumption.
West European lldPE capacity, '000 tonne/year
|Cipen||ND de Gravenchon, France||420|
|Dow Chemical||Tarragona, Spain||190|
|Polimeri Europa||Brindisi, Italy||250|
|Sabic Europetrochemicals||Gelsenkirchen, Germany||370|
|*includes hdPE/lldPE swing units|