Adiponitrile

2005/04/03

Asia remains the hot tip for new investment, but companies are unlikely to be spending big money at present. Engineering resins remains the key driver of growth as textile demand continues to slip
Uses

Adiponitrile (ADN) is used almost exclusively to make hexamethylene diamine (HMDA), of which 92% is used to make nylon 6,6 fibres and resins. Most ADN production is used captively.

Supply/demand

World demand is estimated by Tecnon OrbiChem at 1.3m tonne/year. Demand growth is about 2%/year, entirely accounted for by a 4.5%/year growth in nylon 6,6 engineering resin, as world nylon 6,6 fibre demand is static. There is some demand growth for nylon 6,6 fibre in Asia, mainly for tyre cord, but this is balanced by declining demand for textile filament in developed countries where textile industries are under siege from low-cost production in Asia, especially China.

Nylon 6,6 has been losing market share to nylon 6 in recent years because it has been marketed as a premium product and is at a higher price compared with nylon 6. As a result, nylon 6,6 has made little headway in the Asian textile market compared with nylon 6.

However, nylon 6 needs more benzene feedstock than nylon 6,6 and has been more affected by the recent escalation in benzene prices so, for the moment, the premium price has disappeared. Nylon 6,6 producers have taken advantage of this situation to allow prices for nylon 6 to move ahead of nylon 6,6, possibly with the aim of recovering market share. Lower pricing might, however, dilute nylon 6,6’s image as a premium product, with superior properties as a fibre and an engineering polymer for some applications, so it is not clear whether this policy will be continued long term.

ADN capacity was expanded during 1999-2001 in preparation for world growth, but demand slumped in 2001 with the world economic slowdown and it took until 2003 for world demand to recover. Consequently, there has been overcapacity in the past few years. Even this year, capacity utilisation will not be much above 80%.

The major change in the market has been DuPont’s spin-off of its nylon 6,6 fibres and intermediates business into Invista, which was purchased by Koch Industries last year. Koch is now integrating its KoSa polyester and intermediates business into Invista. DuPont has retained the nylon engineering resins business and now acquires adipic acid and HMDA feedstocks from Koch/Invista on an arms-length basis.

Technology

ADN can be made from butadiene or acrylonitrile. The butadiene route was developed by DuPont and is regarded as the most cost-effective process. However, this route is sensitive to natural gas prices, which are now more than three-times higher than in the 1990s. For a time this put ADN and nylon 6,6 at a disadvantage compared with caprolactam and nylon 6 but, over the past two years, crude oil and petroleum feedstocks costs have also shot up and butadiene-based ADN has shaken off that disadvantage.

The acrylonitrile route is used by Solutia, BASF and Asahi Kasei. This process previously enjoyed low acrylonitrile costs, but with the recent escalation in propylene prices, acrylonitrile prices have doubled and this advantage has disappeared. The former adipic acid route has been abandoned, with closure of the last small plant in China.

There has been much research on using ADN to make caprolactam. Rhodia and BASF/DuPont have completed development work and intended to build caprolactam plants using their processes. However, plans were put on hold and appear unlikely to be revived. Caprolactam production has been a loss-making activity in the last three years. Returns have now moved back into the black, but even dedicated caprolactam producers are unlikely to make any major capital spending plans until profitability has recovered to re-investment levels. This looks questionable for some time to come.

Health and safety

ADN is an oily, colourless liquid with no odour. It is combustible and produces hydrogen cyanide on burning. It reacts violently with strong oxidants. ADN can be absorbed by inhalation, ingestion and skin contact. Exposure can cause convulsions, unconsciousness and may be fatal.

Outlook

Demand growth is estimated at 2%/year, driven by engineering resins. Some growth will take place in industrial nylon 6,6 filament, mostly for tyre-cord yarn in Asia. Nylon yarn is used mainly for truck tyres, since nylon-corded, cross-ply tyres are best able to withstand the gruelling conditions and frequent over-loads widespread in Asia. However, cross-ply tyre use is likely to plateau in a few years as road conditions improve, allowing wider use of steel-belted radial tyres.

Growth in nylon 6,6 textiles is likely to be zero or negative. Its use is declining in industrialised countries, and it has never penetrated high-volume outlets in Asia, which have been inhibited by its high prices.

No new projects have been announced, but there is room for incremental expansions, which will keep up with demand over the next three to four years. Beyond that, a grassroots plant may be needed, most likely in Asia. Demand in China, which imports all its ADN needs, could grow at 10%/year from the current level of 50 000 tonne/year, until demand for cross-ply tyres stabilises.

Possible candidates for new projects are Invista, BASF and Rhodia. However Koch/Invista will probably concentrate on internal reorganisation in the next few years. BASF might make a move in conjunction with a joint HMDA-caprolactam facility, but only if caprolactam profitability improves. Rhodia has taken on a high level of debt and is unlikely to embark on a major investment for several years. These companies are more likely to direct spending towards developing new nylon products rather than new ADN facilities in this decade.

Profile provided by Tecnon OrbiChem, which publishes an annual Polyamide & Intermediates World Survey. Contact tamsin@orbichem.com.

Next profile: calcium chloride will appear 18 April

ADIPONITRILE CAPACITY, ’000 TONNE/YEAR

Company Location Capacity
Europe
BASF Seal Sands, UK 140
Butachimie* Chalampé, France 468
US
Invista Orange, Texas 240
Victoria, Texas 375
Solutia Decatur, Alabama 300
Asia
Asahi Kasei Nobeoka, Japan 41
*Invista/Rhodia 50:50 jv
Source: Tecnon OrbiChem