Published May 2019
Of the polyurethane raw material products industries, the polyester polyol industry is the least concentrated; the others, polyether polyols and isocyanates, are much more concentrated. The polyester polyol industry also tends to have the least sophisticated manufacturing processes and the lowest capital costs. Polyester polyols are manufactured from aliphatic diacids (or esters), aromatic diacids (or esters or anhydrides), or caprolactone. The simplest polyester polyols are prepared by the reaction of a diacid, diester, or caprolactone with a glycol or a polyhydric alcohol; however, occasionally a mixture of aliphatic and aromatic acids is used. The desired reaction is the production of high percentages of hydroxyl-terminated polyesters. The range of molecular weights depends on the relative amounts of the glycol and acids, the reaction conditions, and the desired end use (flexible/rigid foam or CASE).
The following chart presents world consumption of polyester polyols:
The most dynamic markets for polyester polyols continue to be China, India, and other Asia Pacific countries; North America and Europe have also shown improved growth. In terms of end uses, increasing global demand for nonfoam applications, especially for polyurethane elastomers (often for shoes in China and Other Asia) and artificial leather, are major growth drivers. Other important markets are polyurethanes/polyisocyanurates (PUR or PU/PIR) insulation foam, spurring demand for aromatic polyester polyols in the most developed industrial countries of North America and northwestern Europe, as well as in China because of its move to build more energy-efficient buildings.
The largest market for polyester polyols is in a variety of nonfoam applications, accounting for more than 60% of global consumption. The largest nonfoam sector is in polyurethane elastomers, including shoe sole materials (the largest market in China). China is the largest polyester polyols player and consumer in the world, but only for aliphatic polyester polyols; the Chinese market for aromatic polyester polyols is still small.
Before the economic crisis impacted the chemical industry in the fourth quarter of 2008, the market for polyester polyols expanded rapidly between 2005 and 2008. In 2010, essentially all polyester polyol markets had a strong recovery. Since 2011, the global growth for polyester polyols has been uneven, with only mild-to-low growth in Western Europe, the United States, and Japan, and the greatest growth in China (5–6%), India, and Other Asia (highest growth rates but on smaller volumes).
The seven largest producers account for nearly half of the total polyester polyols production capacity (in comparison, the four largest polyether polyols producers own 33% of global capacity). Currently, many large global producers operate in China—Huafeng Group, Stepan, Huada Chemical Group, BASF, and Xuchuan Chemical (Suzhou) Company; these companies produce polyurethane systems for shoe soles and artificial leather. Other major producers include COIM, INVISTA, and Covestro, with major operations in Europe and the Americas.
In the last several years, the industry has offered a wider range of sustainable options for polyurethane manufacturers. Sustainable polyester polyols are the most viable option of all the polyurethane raw materials. Sustainable polyester polyols include products produced from bio-based raw materials and from recycled sources.
Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics (including PET bottles) may be converted into polyester polyols with recycled content (varies but generally 18% and higher). Huntsman (aromatic), INVISTA (aliphatic, minimum of 50% recycled content), Resinate Materials Group (aromatic; recycled PET and polycarbonate, recycled content 50–74% plus renewable content up to a combined 100%), and Petopur are producers that incorporate recycled content into its polyester polyols. The Huntsman process includes the transesterification of PET from preconsumer and postconsumer sources.
Special risk factors for further market development include the following:
- Geopolitical risks, such as unrest in the Middle East and Africa.
- The possible decline in oil prices caused by the slowdown in the world economy will hurt oil-exporting countries, including the Middle East, Libya, Venezuela, and Russia.
- The debt crisis of several European countries as well as the effects of Brexit.
- The slowing of China’s economy and a slowdown in many of its industrial and construction sectors; China represents the largest share of the global market