Monday, October 08, 2012

A World-Wide Diaper Shortage? Yeah, but that's just for Starters

There was a fire last week at a chemical plant in Japan that was poorly covered. While there was coverage that the plant made superabsorbant polymers (SAP) used in (disposable) diapers (nappies for the readers using Commonwealth English), what was not mentioned (shame on C & E News) was that the plant also made acrylic acid.

It is potentially understandable that that linkage could be missed. Superabsorbant polymers are made by copolymerizing sodium acrylic acid and a crosslinker, SAP manufacturers are not required to be manufacturers of acrylic acid - you can simply by it from a manufacturer and you are good to go. But while the plant is a major manufacturer of SAPs (20% of the world market), the fact that it also makes 10% of the world's acrylic acid is a potentially larger concern. Why? Well acrylic acid is an extremely versatile and important chemical feedstock. While it is of little or no value by itself, it is used either as itself or after esterification with various alcohols as the base for endless acrylic polymers, such as
  • Paints of all manners, such as
    • House paints
    • Car Paints
    • Spray Paints (for tagging the 'hood)
    • Marine paints, and
    • Artist Paints
  • Sealants
  • Adhesives, particularly pressure-sensitive adhesives
  • Thickeners
  • Dispersing agents
  • Suspending agents
  • Emulsifying agents
  • Coatings, such as
    • Floor coatings
    • Glass coatings
    • Window coatings, and
    • Architectural Coatings
and of course,
  • Plexiglas
The bottom line is that we need to be concerned about more than just a shortage/price increase in disposable diapers, but also in a plethora of other products that play a big part of our modern lives. As an aside, acrylic acid is a petroleum based products with no bio-based alternatives available - yet. That will change. When you have the biggies such as Dow/OPX, BASF/Cargill/Novozymes, and others working towards a bio-based production, something will certainly pan out.

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