Published May 2018
Cumene is an oily, colorless, flammable liquid with a sharp gasoline-like odor, classified as an aromatic hydrocarbon. It is used primarily as a raw material in the synthesis of other organic compounds, such as phenol, acetone, bisphenol A (BPA), phenolic resins, and methyl methacrylate. However, the manufacture of phenol and acetone production is where cumene is utilized the most. Phenol/acetone production consumes approximately 98% of all cumene globally; therefore, cumene demand is closely tied to the phenol and acetone markets. Many cumene facilities are integrated with downstream production units, such as phenol/acetone, BPA, and polycarbonate resins, while others are integrated upstream to a refinery for feedstocks. Most of the cumene is contracted and the merchant spot market for cumene is small. Although cumene is a liquid and is easily shipped, it is mostly traded within the regions; there is very little international trade.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of cumene:
Global demand for cumene grew at a rate of about 2% annually between 2012 and 2017. Regionally, the largest cumeneconsuming market is Northeast Asia (46% in 2017), followed by Western Europe (21%) and North America (20%). Growth in demand in Northeast Asia is led primarily by China. Chinese consumption of cumene for phenol is forecast to increase at a rate of almost 12% annually from 2017 to 2022, with additional capacity expected.
In addition to the production of phenol/acetone, cumene can be used as a paint thinner or in high-octane aviation fuel. When cumene and its feedstocks become undervalued relative to energy, gasoline blenders can use cumene as a blending component, because cumene has a very high octane rating and is desired at times. Although this use is not as common, it will occur periodically, when the chemical price for cumene falls below cumene’s alternate octane value. This blending practice is mostly limited to North America, where it is easy to absorb relatively small volumes of cumene in the large regional gasoline pool.
One of the main drivers for cumene demand is the increasing production of BPA, a product of phenol and acetone. Polycarbonate (PC) and epoxy resins are the main drivers of BPA demand. Ultimately, it is the strong growth in polycarbonate resin that is driving demand through BPA to phenol/acetone and back to cumene.
The cumene peroxidation process is the largest source of phenol and acetone production. However, the ratio of phenol and acetone produced does not match up with the ratio of phenol and acetone consumed. As demand for BPA grows, phenol becomes the limiting factor. So, as the market continues to grow, it is demand for phenol that determines capacity utilization, not acetone. With the exception of BPA, phenol and acetone have no common markets. Historically, phenol has been the more desirable product. Various alternative phenol processes have been developed that bypass acetone; these typically involve benzene-to-phenol conversions using different catalysts.
Total global consumption for cumene is forecast to increase at an average annual rate of almost 3% per year by 2022. Northeast Asia’s global share is expected to increase to 52% in 2022, followed by Western Europe and North America.