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Wind energy to drive demand for phenol

Modern changes in lifestyles have seen directly contrasting fortunes in two key application areas for phenol and acetone. Typically 40% of phenol sold globally is consumed in the production of bisphenol A, an intermediate by-product which is in turn converted into two principle materials – polycarbonate and epoxy resins.

While the phenol industry has greatly benefited in the past 20 years from the widespread uptake of polycarbonate-based optical data storage goods such as compact discs (CD) and digital videos discs (DVD), the rise in flash memory-based storage devices has meant a dramatic downturn in the demand for polycarbonates. Whilst some growth is still expected in the developing world, these products have fundamentally peaked at the top of their lifecycle and a progressive decline is expected from 2009 onwards.

From shattered opportunities to new markets

Fortunately, to counter this trend, there is the recent boom in demand for epoxy resins, again derived from phenol and acetone via bisphenol A, which most commonly is then reacted with epichlorohydrin to form epoxy resins.

Epoxy resins are used in a multitude of applications affecting our every day lives. From electronic circuit boards to protective coatings for food cans to high voltage insulators or even anti-rust body primer paints for automobiles and adhesives, epoxy resins offer superior stability, stiffness, fatigue resistance and low shrinkage. Epoxy adhesives are almost unmatched in heat and chemical resistance and are used in the construction of aircraft, automobiles, bicycles, boats, golf clubs, skis, snow boards, and other applications where high strength bonds are required.

The most dramatic epoxy demand growth, however, has come from the drive for sustainable alternative energy sources in the current high cost crude oil and energy environment.

Wind turbine power generators have seen major demand growth, with epoxy resins being used extensively in the rotor blade composites. To fabricate rotors that may exceed 40 meters in length requires exceptionally high-performance, lightweight materials that provide the level of stiffness and fatigue resistance to maintain the blades’ structural integrity in both static and dynamic environments.

In the United Kingdom alone, the government has recently announced plans for 7 000 new coastal wind turbines – a dramatic increase from the current 294.

Typically, a standard 1.5-megawatt wind turbine has approximately 10 tonnes of epoxy in its blades made from 6.6 tonnes of phenol and 2.2 tonnes of acetone. When we consider that the world’s global wind energy capacity exceeded 20 000 megawatts in 2007, it comes as no surprise that the demand for phenol and acetone together totaled 88 000 tonnes. With a 20 percent per annum growth projected for the wind energy market, we can expect a gust of wind to boost opportunities for the phenol and acetone industry in the next five years.