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Published: May 2013
Ethylene oxide (EO) is a chemically reactive material and is used in the manufacture of ethylene glycols, ethanolamines, glycol ethers, surface-active agents (ethoxylates) and polyether polyols.
Ethylene oxide is a global product. The Middle East, China and the United States account for the majority of the ethylene oxide market. Of the total global ethylene oxide capacity in 2012, 25% is in the Middle East, 16% is in China, and 12% is in the United States. The rest of Asia accounts for 25% of the world's capacity; these regions together make up nearly 79% of total world capacity.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of ethylene oxide:
The largest market for EO in 2012 was mono-, di- and triethylene glycols, which represented more than three-fourths of total ethylene oxide consumption. Ethylene glycol is used as an intermediate for polyethylene terephthalate (polyester, used for fiber, film and bottle resins) and for antifreeze. Diethylene glycol markets include polyurethane and unsaturated polyester resins and antifreeze. Triethylene glycol is used in gas dehydration and plasticizers and as a solvent.
In addition to the above derivatives, ethoxylates, ethanolamines and glycol ethers are also important EO outlets in most of the major regions of the world. Ethoxylates are used primarily as surface-active agents in detergents. Ethanolamines are used in numerous applications, including gas conditioning and production of soaps, detergents and textile chemicals. Glycol ethers are used in surface coating formulations, brake fluid markets, cleaning products, aircraft fuel additives and solvent applications.
The business focus of EO producers is in one of three areas:
- Ethylene Glycol Producers. These petrochemical producers are in the business of manufacturing ethylene glycol primarily for sale to the polyester fiber, bottle resin and film markets, but they also sell into the antifreeze and industrial markets. They focus on being low-cost suppliers.
- EO Derivatives Producers. Some large petrochemical companies are in the business of manufacturing high-purity EO (HPEO) and ethylene oxide derivatives, which may include any or all of the following: ethanolamines, glycol ethers, EO-based surface-active agents (mostly ethoxylated alcohols), polyethylene glycols, polyether polyols for polyurethanes, ethylene carbonate, and EO-based cellulose ethers or starch adducts.
- Full-Portfolio Producers/Sellers of Glycols and EO Derivatives. These companies are in the business of manufacturing ethylene glycols and purified EO, for internal production of EO derivatives and often for other customers of purified EO.
EO is a colorless gas at room temperature and a liquid at 12°C; it is soluble in organic solvents and miscible in water. It is an irritant to humans, a suspected human carcinogen, highly flammable, and a risk for fire and explosion. Its high reactivity limits its shipment to overland movements by rail, specially designed trucks, or cylinders. EO is a chemically reactive material and is used in the manufacture of ethylene glycols, ethanolamines, glycol ethers, surface-active agents (ethoxylates) and polyether polyols.