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Change of Pace for PIB


Five years ago, demand for polyisobutylene (PIB) seemed set to boom, and suppliers itched to sell more of this key chemical used as a lubricant additive, thickener and synthetic base oil. A fresh opportunity as a replacement for bright stock in heavy-weight industrial and marine lubricants was opening up, and other applications in adhesives, caulks, sealants and pigments were growing as well, thanks to the buoyant housing and automotive markets.

Delighted by the prospects, merchant producers such as Texas Petrochemical Corp. in Houston, Ineos Oligomers in northern Indiana and France, Brazils Polibutenos Industrias and Daelim Industries in Korea all moved to expand or upgrade their PIB output. Unfortunately, much of this volume came to market just as the global recession was pinching back demand.

Today sources say growth has resumed, but at a more subdued pace that cant quickly absorb the capacity overhang. Thats about to change: In February, Ineos said enough and declared it would close its decades-old PIB plant in Whiting, Ind., removing 88,000 metric tons per year from the market by years end. Instead, it will supply North American customers with its trademarked Indopol PIB from a sister facility in Lavera, France.

Ineos had spent $4 million to upgrade the Whiting plant just four years ago, but in vain. While efforts were made to bring the Whiting PIB production plant to profitability, over the last few years the U.S. PIB business has not met financial expectations, explained Jan Vermeersch, commercial general manager for Ineos global PIB business. While the plant is currently still operating, the plan is to close the Whiting site by the end of 2012, he confirmed in late July.

Vermeersch said his company remains committed to the Indopol line. We offer over 20 grades with a molecular weight ranging between 180 and 6000. Our products allow our customers to produce high-quality products in applications such as lubricants, sealants and adhesives, films, polymer modification, agriculture and cosmetics.

Ineos is working hard to keep Whitings customers, he told LubesnGreases. Ineos has launched an active program to supply Lavera-produced Indopol PIB into the North American market, Vermeersch said. The Lavera facility has available production capacity to support both its current customer base and also sales in North America. Ineos customer technical support team is actively working with our North American customers to facilitate the transition to Lavera-produced material. Commercial trials are taking place in various markets and applications, and the customer feedback is positive.

Vermeersch noted that Lavera has advantages such as an integrated supply of feedstock (crude C4, isobutylene) and good logistics. The feedstock for our plant in Lavera, France, is fully supported by C4 streams coming from an Ineos-owned naphtha cracker and refinery co-located at the site. The naphtha cracker and the refinery both produce C4 streams with isobutylene content. The plant is located at a major sea port. With multiple Ineos-owned feedstock options and access to global shipping, Ineos Lavera plant is well situated to meet our customers desire for security of supply, he assured. He added that Indopol from Lavera is available in drums, tote bins and tanktrucks, through current sales and distribution channels.

Lubricants account for over 50 percent of conventional PIB consumption, and an even higher percentage of the highly reactive version, says Milind Phadke, an analyst with the Parsippany, N.J.-based market research firm Kline & Co. Its a very basic chemical that goes into a lot of other products as well – adhesives, sealants, fuel, cosmetics like lipstick, even chewing gum. Any growing economy would have increasing demand for PIB, he added, which is why global merchants such as Ineos, TPC Group (formerly Texas Petrochemical), Kothari Chemical (India), Polibutenos and Daelim emerged.

Large additive manufacturers such as Chevron Oronite, Infineum and Lubrizol also produce PIB, but use almost all their volumes internally to make value-added products. So lubricant companies that want to buy PIB base stock must turn to the merchant market for their supply.

Many of these customers will want highly reactive PIB, where the double bonds are sited at the ends of the molecule for faster reactions with other chemistries. Highly reactive PIB is a thick, tacky, heavy molecule prized as a good backbone for making detergents and dispersants. Its used to make additives, and as a base stock and thickener for products such as gear oils. Its also used a lot in 2T [two-stroke cycle] engine oils, because it burns cleanly and leaves no residue, said Phadke, who is based in Mumbai, India.

PIB itself is doing quite well now that the recession has eased, he continued. Demand for PIB in the lubricants additives segment is good, although its use as a bright stock replacement has not been as strong as expected. Price is a factor there, probably. Many, including Kline, had foreseen a bright stock shortage and felt it would propel PIB into more gear oils, marine engine oils and other heavy industrial lubricants, but that has not panned out yet.

PIB demand is steady, like the overall economy, and were seeing some improvement in areas like the housing market where it goes into caulks and sealants. The lube market is also up some, but at single-digit levels of growth, remarked Randy Redd, PIB business manager with TPC in Houston. He agreed that the bright-stock-replacement demand has been less than stellar. When bright stock prices get high enough, people start to substitute, and then bright producers see it and the price drops again. Maybe in the long run we will see more substitution with PIB, but right now its opportunistic, and substitution just seems to lead to lower bright stock prices. The price of bright will have to get to a higher level before PIBs will be used more widely.

More promisingly, Redd said, PIB demand from the U.S. lubricant and additives market has seen steady increase since the depths of the recession. That side of the market seems to have recovered.

TPC is set up to be a reliable supplier, he noted, with multiple sources of crude C4 from Houstons many petrochemical plants. It invested heavily in 2008 and 2009 to double its PIB capacity (now an estimated 117,500 t/y), and has debottlenecked since then as well. Although it has only one petrochemical plant, we have two units on the same site, which mitigates the effects if one has to be taken off line for work or a turnaround, Redd noted. As part of our contingency planning, we also carry more inventory at terminals elsewhere, such as Hammond, Ind., to keep our customers supplied. Were always stocked to the gills when a hurricane is coming, for example, and we fill up railcars and send them out ahead of a turnaround.

Once Whiting closes, Redd expects the net effect will be a balanced market. Were not expecting a shortage of any kind, but the market overall will be tighter than it used to be. Were doing what we need to, and mostly playing down the drama. Things will be all right. However, lots of folks would like to have a domestic producer, and thats our advantage. When Ineos news about closing Whiting came out in February, a lot of new customers called to get qualifications with our products. I dont think anyone has seen or foresees any shortage, but people are taking prudent action.

Jack Kimes of Focus Chemicals, Greenville, S.C., says hes not worried that PIB supply will come up short. His company, a subsidiary of Palmer Holland, supplies esters, soluble bases and corrosion preventives. Three months ago, it began producing specialized PIB derivatives such as PIB succinamide anhydride (PIBSA) and succinimide (PIBSI), working with South Carolina toll producer Custom Synthesis. For this, it must buy highly reactive PIB on the merchant market. Was that unlucky timing, as the PIB taps are due to tighten? Kimes thinks not.

For the big additive companies, the primary PIB market is automotive lubricants, which takes large volumes, while Focus is more interested in the secondary and tertiary markets, such as metalworking, hydraulic fluids and pigments. So were not looking for huge quantities, maybe a few tanktrucks a month, because were making only specialized versions. Most of what we make is a range of PIBSA and PIBSI, using 950 weight PIB. Second, our supplier has assured us we can have the material we need. Theres also material that comes from overseas.

Kimes has worked with PIBSA in metalworking applications since the 1990s, when he was with Gateway Additive (now part of Lubrizol). He finds PIBSA to be complementary to traditional sulfonate chemistries in water based metalworking fluids, whether soluble oils or semi-synthetic fluids. It works as a dispersant in the same way as in engine oils. It disperses the solids and the bacterial growth that otherwise falls out to the bottom of the central system, and its biostable, so the system is much cleaner.

Overall, Kimes says hes optimistic about the PIB outlook. Of course, were always concerned with supply security, but you either believe in your suppliers or you dont. Its what you have to do.

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