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Published: November 2011
Acrylonitrile is a large-volume commodity chemical, produced by the ammoxidation of propylene. Major acrylonitrile applications include use as a vinyl monomer for such products as polyacrylonitrile for acrylic fibers, in ABS and SAN resin manufacture, and as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of adiponitrile, acrylamide and a variety of other chemicals.
During 2003–2007, the acrylonitrile market underwent a consolidation process as a consequence of the start-up of large production units in 2001 and in 2005 that caused some oversupply in the market. This consolidation brought global capacity into better balance with global demand. The drop in global demand with the recession led to cuts in operating rates and to capacity being idled in North America and Europe in 2009, some of which has since been restarted. The resulting market tightness led to another round of capacity additions beginning in 2010. Most of these capacity additions occurred in Asia and particularly in China.
A number of additional new capacity additions are planned in China, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Korea, but since global demand for acrylonitrile is slowing, the realization of all of these projects is currently questionable. In fact, there is a risk that the market might fall back into an oversupplied situation within the next few years.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of acrylonitrile:
Global acrylonitrile demand reached a peak in 2007, but decreased by about 13% in 2008, as a result of the global economic downturn. Beginning in 2009, global demand recovered at an average annual rate of about 5%. However, in the second half of 2011, the rate of recovery seems to have slowed, as a result of sluggish demand from the major end-use markets—ABS, acrylic fibers and adiponitrile—in the United States and Europe.
Despite the slowdown in 2008, demand for ABS/SAN resins has continued to grow on a global basis and has now surpassed acrylic fibers as the major end use for acrylonitrile. In 2011 this end use represented about 39% of global acrylonitrile consumption. The bulk of this growth is taking place in Asia, driven by the constant development of the electrical appliance and automotive industries.
Acrylic fibers have historically been the largest end use for acrylonitrile; however, demand from this end market has been in decline for many years. As of 2011 acrylic fibers accounted for only 38% of total acrylonitrile consumption, down from 43% in 2007 and nearly 48% in 2004. Acrylic fibers have been experiencing strong interfiber competition, especially from polyester fibers. In the United States, acrylic fiber production stopped in 2005, and in Europe it has been declining for many years. Both these regions have been suffering under increasing competition from Asian imports of both fibers and finished goods. During 2008 a large drop in demand for acrylic fibers was also registered in Asia. Although some recovery has been seen since 2009, demand for this end use is expected to improve only gradually.
Acrylonitrile is a major-volume product in world trade. Dividing the world into regional segments—North America, Western Europe, Asia, Middle East and Other—eliminates the local intrasegment transactions and provides a truer picture of world trade. North America is still the largest acrylonitrile exporter, but its share has decreased in favor of Asian countries during the last few years; Asia is by far the major importing area. Asia will need to continue to import acrylonitrile over the next decade in order to satisfy domestic demand.