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Published: December 2013
Water-soluble polymers, which perform various useful functions such as thickening, gelling, flocculating, rheology modifying and stabilizing in any given application, are used for a wide variety of applications including food processing, water treatment, paper, enhanced oil and natural gas recovery, mineral processing, detergents, textiles, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, petroleum production, and surface coatings.
Water-soluble polymers can be categorized into the following three groups:
- Synthetic, which are produced by the polymerization of monomers synthesized from petroleum- or natural gas–derived raw materials
- Semisynthetic, which are manufactured by chemical derivatization of natural organic materials, generally polysaccharides such as cellulose
- Natural, including microbial-, plant- and animal-derived materials
Water-soluble polymer demand from U.S. shale gas drilling, especially guar gum demand, has significantly increased in recent years. Guar gum, a guar bean derivative, is a vital component of the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing. During early/mid-2012, guar gum prices significantly increased. Accordingly, guar gum production in India and Pakistan has increased significantly. At the same time, water-soluble polymer alternatives to guar gum have been extensively explored. Thus, the U.S. shale gas industry has had a global impact on the water-soluble polymer industry.
By volume, about 60% of the water-soluble polymers used in 2012 were of synthetic origin, 25% were natural, and 15% were semisynthetic.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of water-soluble polymers:
Water-soluble polymers are used primarily to disperse, suspend (thicken and gel), or stabilize particulate matter. However, they may perform any of the following functions:
- Dispersing, suspending, stabilizing
- Film forming
- Lubrication and friction reduction
- Rheology modification and control
- Thickening, gelling
These functions make water-soluble polymers suitable for a wide variety of applications including food processing, water treatment, paper processing, mineral processing, formulation of detergents, textile processing, the manufacture of personal care products, pharmaceuticals, petroleum production, enhanced oil and natural gas recovery, and formulation of surface coatings. These polymers often perform more than one function in any given application.
In terms of gross margins, the pattern for water-soluble polymers has not formed a consistent trend. Most water-soluble polymers excluding natural water-soluble polymers such as vegetable starches continue to remain specialty chemicals requiring technical service. Most manufacturers of water-soluble polymers have provided technical service and product support as part of basic product-for-market-development programs. However, the intensity of technical service has gradually declined because the water-soluble polymer industry has matured. Over the past decade, reduction of production costs has become a key factor in determining profitability as competition from lower-priced imports has sometimes created potentially unprofitable markets, like the commodity chemical market. Rising prices for energy and raw materials are expected to continue over the next five years. Accordingly, reduction of production costs in order to remain competitive and to increase profits will continue to be a key factor in the water-soluble polymer industry.
Continued growth in water-soluble polymers is expected during 2012–2017. In general, demand for water-soluble polymers is growing at rates near or slightly higher than the gross domestic product (GDP), particularly in regions with expanding manufacturing sectors of the economy. As manufacturing increasingly shifts from the United States, Western Europe and Japan to other regions such as Southeast Asia and China, the world's highest growth is migrating to these regions as well. Increasing per capita consumption in economies with rapidly rising GDP such as China and Southeast Asia will also drive increased demand in segments such as food, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.