Published May 2018
Linear alkylbenzene (LAB) is produced by reacting benzene with alkyl groups containing 10 to 13 carbon atoms that are derived from normal (straight-chain) paraffins or linear alpha-olefins. Nearly all LAB is converted to linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS) by sulfonation. LAS is the world’s largest-volume synthetic surfactant (including the various salts of sulfonated alkylbenzenes) and is the major surfactant used in household and industrial detergents. Branched alkylbenzene (BAB) is also sulfonated to produce a branched alkylbenzene sulfonate (BAS) that can be used in the same applications as LAS. However, BAS is slow to biodegrade in waste treatment plants; consequently, it has been replaced by LAS in household detergent applications in the developed countries, but continues to be used in some industrial applications in the developed countries. Its use in household detergent applications has been declining in the lessdeveloped countries as well, because BAS is more expensive to produce than LAS. Branched alkylbenzene is also more expensive than LAB because of tight propylene tetramer supply and price.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of linear alkylbenzene in 2017:
Over the forecast period, consumption of linear alkylbenzene is expected to increase at an average annual rate of about 2.7%, albeit with significant regional differences. Growth will be driven by healthy demand in India, China, Indonesia, and South Korea. These four countries accounted for 44% of total world LAB demand in 2017, with consumption in India surpassing that in China in 2015. India still uses a lot of powder detergents whereas liquid detergents are growing in China. If crude oil prices (and consequently the prices for the LAB feedstocks n-paraffins and benzene) increase significantly during 2017–22, global consumption will likely grow at a rate closer to 2%. Additionally, if there is a big switch to competing oleochemical-based surfactants (particularly in the developing regions and primarily as a result of possible lower fatty alcohol prices in the future compared with LAB), this will also negatively affect LAB consumption, as countries like China will switch detergent formulations.
In mature markets, like North America, Western Europe, and Japan, consumption will be flat or slightly increasing at best. This is a result of the efforts of detergent manufacturers to introduce new products that contain less surfactant per washload. In recent years, liquid laundry detergents (including unit dose packs, especially in the United States) have become more popular with consumers, and therefore, consumption of powder laundry detergents (traditionally containing significant amounts of LAS) has been decreasing. On the other hand, regions with still-developing markets, with significantly lower consumption of detergents per capita, like Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Africa, are expected to register an increase in demand of between 2% and 4% annually.
LAB capacity has grown and will continue to grow during 2017–22, especially in the developing regions, driven by increases in regional demand. The highly developed nations in North America, Western Europe, and Japan together account for less than one-fourth of the total, and this share has continued to decline as a number of LAB plants in these areas have been closed since the early 1980s. In recent years, more plants have been built in the rapidly developing regions of the world to meet the growing demand for synthetic detergents that contain LAS. In most of these countries, the growth in LAB reflects its use in synthetic detergents that are gradually replacing soaps for laundry and dishwashing applications. The effective operating rate of LAB plants (taking into account plant shutdowns, etc.) was close to 90% and the market was relatively balanced in 2017.
Worldwide production and consumption of BAB has steadily decreased over the years. Increased availability of LAB, its competitive pricing, and the concerns associated with the low biodegradability of BAS have led to the steady decline of BAB demand. This trend is expected to continue over the forecast period, and both production and consumption of this product will decline, although at a slower rate.