Enough is Enough Butadiene

Mar 4, 2019
The US needed lots of rubber during World War II. Some battleships contained 20,000 rubber parts. Every inch of military wiring needed to be wrapped in rubber. With its enemy occupying the rubber plantations of Asia, the US needed to perfect a method to synthesize the material. The government scrambled citizens to collect and recycle rubber while it challenged chemists to find a way to make it artificially.
 
The scientists discovered butadiene could be made inexpensively from an oil refinery stream, and polymerized to form a superior rubber. Butadiene rubber helped the US win the war. It became the elastomer of choice for tires, shoes, balls, and bushings. 
 
Auto ownership took off. More oil refineries kept popping up, turning crude oil into gasoline. The naphtha left over was sent to hydrocarbon crackers that turned it into ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of plastics.  A by-product of these ethylene crackers was butadiene. Lucky, because tons of it was needed to make tires.
 
By the 1980s, ethylene crackers in the US were making millions of tons of the raw material as a by-product. Plants making butadiene on purpose closed. 
 
In this decade, those crackers began feeding on the newly plentiful shale gas in the US.  These natural gas liquids are lighter, and kick out much less butadiene. Rubber users sounded the alarm. Where would we get the 11.5 million tons of butadiene for all the new and replacement tires needed, especially for the increasingly motorized populations of Asia? Are we going to have to build a lot of new plants to make butadiene on purpose again?
 
“Butadiene supply will keep up with demand,” Nexant’s Elliot Frisch reassured attendees at the ICIS Butadiene conference in New York City in December. “The new wave of crackers in the United States will provide incremental supply of butadiene, reducing the import requirements of the US.  European producers will produce a lot of butadiene from the natural gas liquids it buys from the US.  And a new wave of crackers in China will be followed by more in the Middle East, flooding the world with ample supply.” China will consume much of it, making tires for its own vehicles and the world’s. 
 
Download Elliot Frisch’s presentation, “Lighter Cracking in the Global Market and Impact on the US Market” here.