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Published: February 2009
Zeolites are a group of hydrated aluminosilicates of the alkali or alkaline earth metals (principally sodium, potassium, magnesium, lithium, barium and calcium). Zeolites have three-dimensional crystalline frameworks of tetrahedral silica or alumina anions strongly bonded at all corners. The zeolite structures contain (–Si–O–Al–) linkages that form surface pores of uniform diameter and enclose regular internal cavities and channels of discrete sizes and shapes, depending on the chemical composition and crystal structure of the specific zeolite involved. Pore sizes range from about 2 to 12 angstroms. The enclosed cavities contain both the metal cations and water molecules. The cations are loosely bound to the lattice and thus can engage in ion exchange. The water molecules can also be reversibly driven off in most zeolites.
The largest-volume use for synthetic zeolites is as a builder in home laundry detergent powders. In developed countries (North America, Western Europe and Japan), the use of detergent zeolites is mature and has begun to decline. The decline is due to increasing efficiency of the zeolite builders, competition from other builders, increased use of liquid detergents that do not contain zeolites, and the increased popularity of front-loading washing machines that require less water and less detergent.
The second-largest zeolite use, accounting for about 17% of the total volume in 2008, was for the production of catalysts. These catalysts are used principally for petroleum catalytic cracking, with small volumes consumed in hydrocracking and chemical synthesis. Overall demand growth has been flat in Japan but moderately upward throughout Europe, North America and the rest of Asia.
The third major end use for zeolites, in adsorbent/desiccant applications, accounted for an estimated 10% of the world volume in 2008. Demand in this application has grown well because of increased demand for insulated windows, and for moisture removal from petrochemical gas streams and oxygen generation systems.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of zeolites:
Almost all catalyst zeolites are used to refine petroleum or to synthesize petrochemical products. FCC (fluid catalytic cracking) catalysts, containing primarily USY zeolites, account for more than 95% of total consumption. Refiners’ margins have been under pressure because of environmentally driven investment costs. This has resulted in some industry rationalization, consolidation and globalization, giving the remaining oil companies more concentrated bargaining power with suppliers at the same time they are under increased pressure to reduce costs. In turn, the FCC catalyst industry has rationalized and the remaining participants have focused on reducing their catalyst production costs. For the major FCC catalyst producers, this has led to a concentration of world-class-level FCC catalyst capacity in North America (the largest current market for FCC catalysts) where production costs are tightly controlled. The expanding markets of Asia Pacific, the Middle East and South America are mainly served by imports. Specialty zeolite catalysts used in petroleum refining applications are also subject to pricing pressures.
Much of the anticipated growth in demand for catalyst and adsorbent/desiccant zeolites will be in the Asia Pacific market and the Middle East. With the exception of UOP’s plant at Shanghai, China, the major zeolite producers have expanded at existing locations, preferring to serve foreign markets with exports.