Penreco Opens Sulfonate Taps


North Americas lubricant industry is regaining some of the natural sodium sulfonate supply that it lost with Shell Oil Co.s closing of its Martinez, Calif., base oil plant earlier this year.

The sole remaining North American supplier, Penreco, announced last week that it will increase its output five-fold by adding natural sulfonate production to its white oil plant in Dickinson, Texas.

Penreco officials said the action is a significant commitment to the market because the sulfonates in Dickinson are a first-intentioned product using naphthenic feedstock. Vice President of Domestic Sales and Marketing Dan Schramm said the quality of the Dickinson sulfonates will be more consistent than those made as a byproduct of white oil manufacturing from paraffinic feedstock at Penrecos Karns City, Pa., plant.

Penreco has been examining various feeds and manufacturing schemes to allow the production of an optimum natural sulfonate, Schramm said. Our goal was to develop a plan to produce a quality product to support the continuing natural sulfonate requirement in this region.

Sulfonates are used in a variety of lubricants but most prominently to aid emulsification in metalworking fluids. Natural sulfonates also provide corrosion protection. Although alternatives have been available for many years, petroleum-based sodium sulfonates were long the most popular choice, primarily because of their purported price advantage. Shells Martinez plant was the biggest source, producing 30to 40 million pounds per year, or 80 percent of the U.S. market for natural sulfonates. But the market lost that supply when Shell closed the Martinez base oil plant in September.

There was a flurry of activity after Shell announced its plans for Martinez early in 2003, with numerous companies scrambling to attract former Shell customers with synthetic alternatives – some of which had already been marketed in North America, some of which had not -and imported naturals. Lube blenders that switched to synthetics generally had to reformulate.

Although many of Shells former customers have already switched to synthetic alternatives, Penreco believes some can be lured back to natural sulfonates.

We would have liked to have made this announcement earlier, but we wanted to take the time we needed to make sure we did it right, Schramm said. I think there is still demand for this type of product.

Penreco officials declined to disclose the capacity of its sulfonate production or the cost of the Dickinson expansion. Schramm did say that the new facility was built to allow future expansion.

Penreco also said it has entered an agreement making Lockhart Chemical Co. the exclusive outlet for sulfonates from both the Dickinson and Karns City plants. Penreco will supply existing customers atcurrent levels until April. Lockhart,headquartered in Gibsonia, Pa., will be the sole source of Penreco sulfonates in the United States and Canada. Penreco retains selling rights elsewhere.

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