Time Short for Sulfonate Users


The decision by Shell Oil Products US to close its base oil refinery in Martinez, Calif., is causing big disruptions for users of the plant’s sodium sulfonates, especially in the metalworking fluids market.

The plants closure, scheduled for the end of August, will eliminate the source of most of the emulsifiers used by metalworking fluid formulators. Fluid manufacturers and formulators are hurriedly searching for alternative solutions. Those in the market generally agree that the transition will require lots of work and result in more expensive products.

Sulfonates are used in a variety of lubricants, but most prominently to assist emulsification of metalworking fluids. Natural sulfonates also provide corrosion protection. Although alternatives exist, petroleum-based sodium sulfonates – or natural sulfonates – have long been the most popular choice, and the Martinez refinery has long been the biggest source. Historically, the plant produces 30 million to 40 million pounds per year, approximately 80 percent of the U.S. market for natural sulfonates. Sources say Martinez supplies every significant user of natural sulfonates in the country. Other significant suppliers of natural sulfonates include Penreco and Crompton.

The closing of Martinez is going to have an enormous impact on the metalworking fluids market, said Jim MacNeil, business unit manager for additive supplier Dover Chemical Corp., of Dover, Ohio. Weve had to deal with materials shortages before. But I dont remember a case where we had to deal with what amounts to the exit of a major component.

Although Martinez is scheduled to close in just six months, Shell says it hopes to offer existing customers 12 months of supply beginning this month. The company believes it can meet that goal by running the facility at full throttle.

The indications that we have received are that our current customers will buy whatever they can for as long as they can, said Shells Tommy Cole, adding that customers will probably have to receive final deliveries around November.

Observers speculate that the end may not be as orderly as Shells plan implies.

That sounds good in theory, MacNeil said. But probably what will happen is that everybody is going to want to stock up as much as possible, and theres going to be a big scramble.

Users of Martinez sulfonates have three general options when their supply disappears: buy imported natural sulfonates; switch to synthetic sulfonates; or use alternative emulsifying chemistries, such as specialty esters.

Some marketers, foreseeing that Martinez would eventually be closed,previously developed alternative products, and have only to dust them off and begin commercial production. In the cases of many more products, however, work to develop alternatives began only after Shells announcement last month.

I think most people expected this day would come eventually, said Val A. Pakis, president of metalworking fluid manufacturer D.A. Stuart Co., of Warrenville, Ill. His company already had alternative formulas for some products but did not for many others. Like many other companies, we should have started working on this sooner. But the natural sulfonates were still available and were still cost-effective.

Sources say the industry faces an enormous amount of reformulation work. Synthetic sulfonates and other alternatives are well-identified, but most are not drop-in substitutes. Companies are now in the process of writing new recipes, testing their performance, tweaking to improve shortcomings and then retesting.

Some formulators contend that synthetics do not perform as well as natural sulfonates. In addition to emulsification, Martinez sulfonates were used as corrosion inhibitors. The nations largest source of synthetic sulfonates, Pilot Chemical Co., of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., disputes such claims, arguing that synthetics perform better, if used properly.

The thing is that natural sulfonates have been the emulsifier of choice for so long, the formulas of generations of products have been developed based on their use, Pilot’s Vice President of Marketing Neil A. Burns said. It shouldnt be surprising that synthetics dont work as well in those formulas.

On the other hand, synthetics work very well when you develop formulas based on their use. And natural sulfonates would not work well at all if you tried to substitute them into those formulas.

Martinez customers may be forced to undertake some level of reformulation even if they begin using natural sulfonates from other sources, since performance characteristics such as viscosity can differ significantly.

While many fluid marketers appear anxious to identify solutions, those serving manufacturers in the auto industry may face the biggest time crunch. Many such manufacturers require fluid suppliers to provide notice of significant formula changes and, in many cases, to submit new formulas to lengthy testing.

The biggest challenge the formulators have is satisfying their customers, Burns said. I think a lot of them are going to have to seek some relief on these requirements that new products be tested.

Dover claims to have a solution allowing companies to avoid the reformulation headache. Last month it launched a line of medium-molecular-weight surfactants that it says can serve (almost) as drop-in substitutes for natural sulfonates. MacNeil said Dover developed Doverlube FL 301 and FL 302 last year and decided totrumpet them after Shell announced plans to close Martinez. He emphasized that the new products do not protect against corrosion.

Most in the market expect the closure of Martinez to drive up emulsifier costs and, ultimately, prices for metalworking fluids. Formulators who choose to import natural sulfonates from elsewhere will of course pay added costs for transportation. In addition, some sources predicted that prices for these products will rise as U.S. supply shrinks.

Synthetics are also considered to be more expensive. Pilots Burns contends that this is not necessarily the case, as synthetics offer more emulsification than naturals, pound for pound. On the other hand, one marketer of metalworking fluids observed, on condition of anonymity, If natural sulfonates werent more cost-efficient, you would have already seen more people using synthetics.

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