Published January 2017
Demand for acrylonitrile is broadly tied to the general economy and is therefore cyclical. Most of acrylonitrile’s major end markets—ABS resins, acrylic fiber, and adiponitrile, for instance—are cyclical and impacted by economic downturns, when consumer spending contracts. Like many chemicals and chemical intermediates, most of the new demand for acrylonitrile and its derivatives now comes from the emerging world, where improvements in living standards drive demand for products such as appliances, automobiles, electronics, textiles, apparel, consumables, and the development of infrastructure. In 2016, China alone accounted for 32% of the global acrylonitrile market. Further growth is forecast for acrylonitrile through 2021. Northeast Asia is forecast to account for about 55% of the global incremental demand over the next five years.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of acrylonitrile:
The acrylonitrile market’s dependence on the state of the economy was evidenced during the global recession in 2008–09, when it dropped by 12% in just a year. The acrylamide and nitrile rubber end markets have shown more resiliency than other acrylonitrile markets over the past 10 years. Acrylamides are essentially used to produce polyacrylamides, which are used primarily in wastewater treatment applications. The nitrile rubber market has been positively influenced by the fastrising production of nitrile gloves, which are used in the resilient and growing healthcare segment. However, both of these end markets are quite small and have not been able to fully offset the overall acrylonitrile market decline seen during the last global recession.
Production of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) resins is the primary end use for acrylonitrile globally, accounting for 34% of the overall demand. ABS is the largest-volume thermoplastic engineering resin in the market because of its unique properties of strength, rigidity, heat resistance, and toughness, which make it a prime copolymer for diverse technical and demanding applications. The composition of ABS resins can vary widely, allowing the production of many different grades that can be tailored for different end-use applications.
The primary uses for ABS are in the appliance market, where impact and/or heat resistance are often required (kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, hair dryers, etc.). Appliances account for about 40% of ABS demand globally. The electrical and electronics market is also a key end market for ABS resins, accounting for about 25% of demand. The automotive industry is a notable market for ABS, ultimately accounting for 11–13% of global ABS resin consumption.
Acrylic fiber was once the single largest outlet for acrylonitrile, accounting for more than half of the market in 2000. However, over the past 10 years, acrylic fiber has suffered from intense competition from low-priced polyester fibers, causing demand to gradually decline. Polyester fiber has become the fiber of choice in the textile industry because of its physical properties, price, recyclability, and versatility, which offer a unique set of advantages unmatched by any other fiber. Acrylic fiber has remained the fiber of choice for a few outdoor and textile applications. Over the past decade, the acrylonitrile volumes used to produce acrylic fiber have contracted at an average rate of 3.3% annually, and now account for about 29% of acrylonitrile demand.
Acrylamide is the world’s third-largest acrylonitrile end use, accounting for 13% of the market for acrylonitrile. More than 90% of acrylamide is used for polyacrylamide (PAM) production. PAMs are organic flocculants and their dominant use is as wastewater treatment agents. They are used primarily as conditioning and dewatering aids for sludges, thickening of waste sludges in municipal sewage treatment, and in industrial operations such as pulp and paper plants.
Another important application for PAM is in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). EOR is generally used when all conventional extraction methods have become inefficient. It maximizes extraction yields by injecting either a gas (e.g., carbon dioxide or natural gas) or a PAM/water solution. The use of PAM in a water solution is estimated to enhance the overall oil recovery by 15–25%. Crude oil prices need to be high enough to make EOR attractive for producers.
Over the next five years, acrylonitrile demand is expected to increase at an average annual rate of 3.2%. Overall, 55% of the global demand growth is expected to come from Northeast Asia, followed by the Middle East and North America. Acrylamide and ABS resin applications will account for most acrylonitrile demand growth through 2021.