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Published: September 2010
Cellulose ethers are high-molecular-weight compounds produced by replacing the hydrogen atoms of hydroxyl groups in the anhydroglucose units of cellulose with alkyl or substituted alkyl groups. The commercially important properties of cellulose ethers are determined by the molecular weight of the cellulose used, the chemical structure and distribution of the substituent groups and the degree of substitution and molar substitution (where applicable). These properties generally include solubility, viscosity in solution, surface activity, thermoplastic film characteristics and stability against biodegradation, heat, hydrolysis and oxidation. Viscosity in solution varies directly with molecular weight.
Though the cellulose ethers market is global, most of the production capacity is in Europe, as is most of the consumption. Most of the major producers have facilities in more than one region; they move their products among regions in order to balance production of the various grades and they export to regions in which they do not have facilities. China is the largest target for new cellulose ether plant construction and expansions of existing plants; however, Chinese plants tend to have lower capacity utilization compared with other regions.
Cellulose ethers are used in a variety of applications. The customer base in some of the larger applications (i.e., detergents, surface coatings, building products and oil field applications) is fairly concentrated, with high-volume end users. However, these applications account for less than half of the total market for cellulose ethers; the remainder of the market is highly fragmented. Cellulose ethers typically represent a small fraction of a consumer's total raw material purchases and there appears to be no desire for backward integration by end users. The power consumers wield is the threat of switching to alternative materials that can compete on a functional basis with cellulose ethers.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of cellulose ethers:
Asia consumes the largest volume of cellulose ethers (35%), followed by Europe at 33% and North America at 14%. Carboxymethycellulose (CMC) is the major cellulose ether consumed, representing nearly 57% of the total volume consumed. Methylcellulose (MC) represents about 25% by volume, followed by hydroxyethylcellulose (HEC) at 14%.
An overall average annual growth rate of slightly over 4% is expected for all cellulose ether products in 2009–2014. In Asia, the lowest growth is expected in Japan, while China will lead global growth. The regions with the highest current consumption, Europe and China, will grow at 3.0% and 5% on an average annual basis, respectively. North America will grow faster (3.4%), than Europe and Japan.