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Production shutdowns and dip in operating rates challenge MMA market

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

According to new chemical research from IHS Markit (IHS), the global market for methyl methacrylate (MMA) is increasing significantly, while supply continues to be constrained.

MMA is essential for the production of a diverse range of consumer products, including automotive plastics, TV and electronics screens, optical devices, dental and orthodontic products, signage, lighting, windows, and household acrylic paints, coatings and adhesives. The primary application for MMA, representing approximately 50% of global demand, is as a feedstock for production of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). PMMA is a key plastic used in a host of applications, including acrylic glass. The second largest application is for production of paints and coatings, which consumes about 40% of global MMA demand, IHS reports.

According to the IHS Markit Global Acrylates and Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP) Market Advisory Service, global demand for MMA through 2018 is expected to reach 3.7 million t, and by 2023, demand for MMA will exceed 4.3 million t. Much of this increase is due to growing demand for coatings and adhesives in China and elsewhere. Global demand growth will average slightly more than 3% during the next five years, with more mature, primarily western markets growing at up to 2% during that time period.

“MMA has been tight globally for more than 18 months, but the situation became exceptionally difficult this spring,” said Denis Poussin, Director, Global Acrylates Research at IHS, and lead author of the IHS analysis. “A series of planned and unplanned production outages in Asia during 2016 crashed operating rates around the globe. Similar production challenges impacted US production in 2017, and the market responded with sharp price increases for MMA, particularly in China and the US.”

MMA prices in China have been steadily increasing during the last 18 months, reaching just under US$2 900/t, according to the IHS report. In Western Europe and the US, producers also benefited from higher prices during the same period. European prices increased nearly 60% since January 2017, to US$3 058/t (delivered). Prices increased nearly 20% in the US during the same period.

Poussin expects that a cluster of further planned shutdowns in September and October 2018, both in Asia and in the US, will result in a second dip in operating rates and constricted supply. Available MMA capacity in the US will drop to 65%, while capacity in Northeast Asia will fall 80% during the period, according to IHS. This tightness will lead to price hikes as companies seek to add volume through internal transfers, swaps or the merchant market. Newly built capacity will not be sufficient to cover the supply gap caused by maintenance shutdowns late this year, IHS reports.

“Our discussions with buyers have revealed that few are aware of this rapidly approaching period of renewed market tightness, especially European buyers,” Poussin said. “Typically, European buyers expect a quiet fourth quarter of the year, due, in part, to the drop in demand in the region for household paint and home improvement products, but we believe that seasonal demand decline is likely to be less this year, and other demand sectors continue to be strong.”

One of the reasons the market continues to be so tight is that between 2012 and 2016, the MMA market was oversupplied. Prices declined and manufacturers, who were barely breaking even, quit investing in new MMA production facilities, particularly in the US and Western Europe, Poussin said.

“In recent years, market demand has caught up with supply, and we’ve seen continuous growth in demand, but the ageing facilities and underinvestment in new facilities has constrained supply,” he added. “The older facilities that exist have been plagued with a number of planned and unplanned shutdowns, which caused costs to rise and supply to tighten during the past 18 months. That, in turn, makes it harder for buyers to manage supply chain costs and risks.”

Poussin said two new facilities have been commissioned this year in the Middle East, but their added production has had a minimal impact on the market this year and will not be sufficient to cover 2018 production losses due to maintenance shutdowns. One of those plants – the Saudi Methacrylates Company, is a joint venture between Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation known as SAMAC, and began operation earlier this year in Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia. The Jubail SAMAC facility has a capacity of 250 000 tpy. Its accompanying intermediates plant is currently producing 40 000 tpy of PMMA, IHS reports. The second MMA plant built in the region is Petro-Rabigh’s 90 000 tpy unit, located in Rabigh, Saudi Arabia. Petro-Rabigh also has an accompanying 50 000 tpy of PMMA plant in Rabigh, which opened this spring.

MMA is a key driver for the consumption of other chemicals. Roughly 25% of global acetone production is used to produce MMA, so MMA is a significant contributor to downstream chemical consumption, the report said. Acetone, however, has been relatively expensive in western markets due to pricing it against what most in the industry think of as its feedstock. A longer-term issue for MMA production is that MMA demand derived from the traditional acetone cyanohydrin route is static due to its requiring hydrogen cyanide (HCN) as feedstock. There are also scale limitations, Poussin said.

“However, the big issue for MMA producers and buyers is the lack of reliability of ageing assets and ageing technology that relies upon cyanide as a feedstock for the traditional acetone route,” said Marc Alvarado, Associate Director of Syngas Chemicals at IHS. “Cyanide is an extremely poisonous chemical that producers would like to limit, given that commercially viable, alternative paths to MMA production exist.”

Newer technologies, such as the Alpha C2 process from Lucite International, the world’s largest producer of MMA, offer an ethylene route to MMA production, avoiding the need for cyanide. Additionally, it offers a tremendous feedstock cost advantage to US producers who have access to the country’s large volumes of inexpensive ethylene production. Not only does the ethylene process offer cheaper raw materials for production of MMA, but also economies of scale, particularly for producers in the US and the Middle East, according to IHS.

Evonik Industries, the world's second largest MMA producer, has developed a technology that uses ethylene to produce MMA, but the company has not yet proven it with a new unit. The company announced earlier this year that it was evaluating all options for future development of its MMA business, and a possible sale of its assets could encourage a new investor or shareholder to invest in a new MMA unit, IHS reports.

“These newer methods not only offer health and safety benefits of avoiding an extremely hazardous chemical, but also capture the feedstock cost benefits of plentiful ethylene supplies that exist in the US,” Alvarado said.

According to IHS Process Economics Program (PEP) MMA reports, the two newer ethylene-based processes take different reaction routes to produce MMA. In the Lucite process, ethylene reacts with carbon monoxide and methanol to produce methyl propionate, which then reacts with formaldehyde to form MMA by removing water. In Evonik’s LiMA process, ethylene reacts with hydrogen and carbon monoxide to produce propionaldehyde, which in turn reacts with formaldehyde to form methacrolein (MA) by removing water. MA further reacts with air and methanol to produce MMA.

Other than the acetone (C3) and ethylene (C2)-based processes mentioned above, MMA can also be produced by isobutylene or tertiary butanol (C4)-based processes.

These options make MMA production very interesting from a process technology viewpoint,” said RJ Chang, Director of Chemical Process Technology Research at IHS, and an author of the IHS Process Economics Programs on MMA technologies. “The competitive production economics is highly dependent on the relative price of C2, C3, and C4 feedstocks in each region. To make sound investment decisions, a company needs to take into account feedstock availability in each region and price fluctuations during the investment period,” Chang said.

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