Published November 2015
Polyurethanes are based on the exothermic reaction of polyisocyanates and polyol molecules. Many different types of polyurethane materials are produced from a few types of isocyanates and a range of polyols with different functionality and molecular weights. Some of the diversity of functionality depends on whether the polyols are based on polyethers or polyesters. Most polyether polyols are produced for polyurethane applications; however, other end uses range from synthetic lubricants and functional fluids to surface-active agents. This report focuses on urethane applications.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of polyether polyols for urethanes:
The polyether polyol business is both concentrated and global. Dow Chemical is the largest world producer of polyether polyols, with the largest number of plants and capacities in the greatest number of countries. Covestro (formerly operating as Bayer MaterialScience) is the second-largest producer, with plants in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Other worldwide producers are BASF and Shell.
Most major polyether polyol producers are in the process of developing or have already developed natural oil–based polyols (NOPs). These products are based on renewable (vegetable) oils including soybean, castor, rapeseed, and corn oils. Although these products have a “green” image, there is also concern about the competition for arable land between nonfood and food production in emerging markets.
During 2014–19, consumption in North America is forecast to increase with GDP, amounting to an average annual rate of 2.8%; growth drivers are flexible-foam polyols for the transportation and bedding sectors and rigid-foam polyols for construction and refrigerator/freezer markets (primarily in Mexico and to a lesser extent in the United States).
During 2012–14, the Western European polyurethane market was impacted by economic insecurity caused by the sovereign debt crisis in the southern European countries, which was triggered by the crisis in Greece and led to a negative GDP in southern Europe in 2012 and 2013. Projected growth rates in Western Europe might be reached only if this state debt crisis can be resolved in the foreseeable future. Western European consumption of polyether polyols for flexible foam is suffering from furniture and mattress imports, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe and especially from Poland.
Consumption of polyether polyols in global markets will grow at an average annual rate of 4% during 2014–19; the greatest growth will take place in Asia (excluding Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan). Recently, global growth has declined as a result of the economic slowdown in China, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Central and South America, and Japan. Slightly higher than historical growth is expected in North America, India, and Other Asia.