Chemical profile: US ethyl acetate

14 February 2014 00:00 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

The major outlet for ethyl acetate (etac) is coatings, which accounts for 60% of demand. Process solvents, including pharmaceuticals and organic synthesis, account for 15% while printing inks are estimated at 15%. Etac is a colourless, mobile, volatile liquid, with a fruity odour. It is highly flammable, soluble in ethyl alcohol and ether but slightly soluble in water.

Etac has applications as a solvent in inks for printing. It is used as an extraction solvent in the production of pharmaceuticals and food, and as a carrier solvent for herbicides. High purity product can be used as a viscosity reducer for resins used in photoresist formulations.

As an active solvent, etac is available in three grades: 85-88%, 99% and 99.5% (urethane grade). The most popular is 99% grade which is chiefly used in industrial lacquers and enamels. Other uses of etac include adhesives and cosmetics.

One word has been used, by buyers and sellers, to describe the US etac market over the last several months – balanced. And so balanced, in fact, that upticks in demand due to a strong US construction season in mid-2013 still resulted in flat-to-soft prices. Some sources have even said that the etac market globally is in oversupply.

According to recent data from the International Trade Commission (ITC), US etac imports in November 2013 decreased 15% year on year. Meanwhile, etac exports decreased 19% year on year, the data showed.

Contract prices for etac have been flat for nearly a year. The market has long been described as balanced.

In late 2013, etac producers faced a dilemma. Prices of feedstock acetic acid appeared to be inching up while the etac market faced oversupply in the market. Raising prices could cause buyers to turn to reformulated – and cheaper – versions of similar solvents.

Taking a chance, several producers made separate 3 cent/lb price increase nominations for early 2014. Those nominations were firmly rejected in the market.

The US etac market has mirrored the market in Europe, which has seen price increase announcements fall flat due to amply supply in the market. Asia etac prices appear to be softening. Upstream, US industrial grade ethanol prices were mainly flat-to-soft in 2013.

Etac is mainly produced by the esterification of ethanol with acetic acid. Some is produced by the catalytic condensation of acetaldehyde with alkoxides. In the esterification process, a mixture of acetic acid and ethanol is preheated with a small amount of sulfuric acid. This is fed to an esterifying column for reflux.

The mixture removed from there goes into a second refluxing column where etac is removed. A third refluxing column is used to remove impurities. A number of newer technologies have been commercialised in China and South Africa.

The US etac market – which spent most of 2013 long and flat – is likely to see similar slow activity during the first half of 2014.

Most of the etac buying during the first quarter of 2014 will be to replace orders not made in December, and to gear up for the paints and coatings season.

Even with the normal seasonal demand for etac, the market faces a dilemma. There is so much etac in the market that even higher demand will likely not raise prices.

The only thing likely to significantly raise prices in etac in early 2014 is a very robust paints and coatings season.

By Andrew Guy Jr