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Published: March 2013
Tetrahydrofuran (THF) is a cyclic ether with two primary industrial uses. The major use is as a monomer in the production of polytetramethylene ether glycol (PTMEG), a component of cast and thermoplastic urethane elastomers, polyurethane stretch fibers (spandex) and high-performance copolyester-polyether elastomers (COPE). A smaller amount of THF is used as a solvent in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cements, pharmaceuticals and coatings, in precision magnetic tape manufacture and as a reaction solvent.
Global THF capacity grew an estimated 10-15% during 2010-2012 but is expected to increase by more than 40% by 2017, with a large majority of these proposed additions being based in China. The two largest global producers of THF are BASF and Dairen Chemical Corporation, combining for 54% of world capacity as of early 2013.
THF is manufactured predominantly by the conventional method of 1,4-butanediol (BDO) cyclization. INVISTA, BASF and ISP (Marl, Germany) currently produce BDO via the acetylene/formaldehyde (Reppe) process, while LyondellBasell produces BDO via the propylene oxide/allyl alcohol process. More recently, n-butane-based processes (BASF) have been developed that eliminate the intermediary step to BDO, while Mitsubishi Chemical's process from butadiene/acetic acid coproduces BDO and tetrahydrofuran, and can shift from making primarily one or the other.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of tetrahydrofuran (THF):
In 2012, about 79% of U.S. and Western European THF demand was consumed in the manufacture of PTMEG. The remainder was for solvent applications and in Western Europe, for the production of tetrahydrothiophen, a gas odorant. The largest solvent market for THF is in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cements; THF is also used as a reaction solvent in the production of pharmaceuticals, in Grignard reactions, and as a chromatographic solvent.
In Asia, the share of THF consumed for PTMEG is even higher, at 86-88%, to supply the region's rapidly growing market for spandex. With the start-up of new, large THF and PTMEG plants in China during late 2009 through 2012, Japanese PTMEG exports to China declined. THF exports to China, however, increased to supply the shortfall following Mitsubishi's PTMEG Ningbo start-up in 2009. Chinese THF production capacity has expanded dramatically (more than 30% per year during 2002-2012); even so, the country depends on imports to meet a portion of demand. By 2017, China will surpass Other Asia with nearly 50% of the global THF capacity and 40% of the global market.
Despite some economic and end-use recovery in 2010, THF demand improved only slightly as producers suffered supply shortages and intermittent outages of 1,4-butanediol. By 2011, however, steady BDO supplies and improved PTMEG demand contributed to a strong rebound, slowing by year-end and throughout much of 2012, due to the weakening global economic activity. THF remains largely dependent upon spandex production, changes in the global THF and PTMEG supply, and overall activity in construction markets.