Bromine – an industry under pressure?

By Laura Syrett
Published: Friday, 07 November 2014

The world’s major bromine producers have issued indifferent outlooks for the industry in 2015 and have been forced to introduce price rises to help stave off narrowing margins. IM spoke to leading chemicals consultancy IHS about the prospects for shrinkage in some bromine markets and growth in others.

Dead Sea [tsaiproject]
The Dead Sea is one of the world's richest and most sustainable sources of bromine.

The global bromine industry continues to operate under pressure, and the world’s main bromine producers have recently indicated that they expect demand and prices to be broadly flat at current levels for the next year.

Despite various predictions of market growth, led by expanding demand for bromine in clear brine solutions for the oilfield industry, bromine’s traditional end uses are undergoing changes that could restrict rises in consumption rates, particularly in flame retardants.

Sourced from naturally occurring brines, commercial extraction of bromine involves heating brine to around 90°C and treating it with chlorine to oxidise bromine ions into elemental bromine. This is then separated from the brine using either steam (for concentrated brines) or air (for seawater).

The world’s four largest bromine companies – Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL), and Jordan Bromine Co. (JBC), Albemarle Corp. and Chemtura Corp. – account for around 70% of global bromine production capacity and are divided between two of the world’s most important bromine-producing regions.

ICL and JBC are based in their namesake countries of Israel and Jordan in the Middle East, sharing a border that runs through the bromine-rich Dead Sea. According to ICL, this inland, biblically distinguished body of water is the world’s most sustainable source of the mineral.

Albemarle and Chemtura are based in the US and extract bromine from concentrated, sub-surface brines in Arkansas.

Stefan Schlag, Switzerland-based senior consultant at IHS Chemical, says that both of these natural bromine sources have the advantages of richness and sustainability that have helped ensure market dominance for the ‘big four’.

“They all produce bromine at competitive production cost with access to relatively highly concentrated brines,” Schlag told IM.

These same four companies also produce the bulk of global supplies of downstream brominated organic compounds, inorganic bromines and hydrobromic acid, which are used in a range of applications including flame retardants, catalysts and clear brines for oil well drilling.

The reason why bromine producers also manufacture their own bromine derivatives is due to logistical cost constraints, Schlag explains.

In its elemental form, bromine is a highly toxic, corrosive substance that has to be transported in lead-lined ISO tanks, which conform to standards set by a number of international regulatory bodies.

“Most of the world’s bromine is actually consumed at the place where it is produced,” says Schlag. “The cost of transportation [for bromine] is high because of the need for special transportation containers, and accordingly it makes sense to use elemental bromine at the site where it is produced. The situation is similar to that of chlorine.”

International trade figures show that there is some trade in elemental bromine, originating mostly from the Dead Sea, and from the US. However the majority of the world’s bromine is traded in the form of derivative products.

Europe, which is a main importer of bromine, accounts for roughly 30,000 tpa of imports, according to figures published by Eurostat. This compares with the total size of the world bromine chemicals market of around 800,000 tonnes, Schlag says.

Market growth

“Consumption of bromine is overall expected to grow over the [coming] years, and most of the additional volume is expected to come from the main use in flame retardants,” Schlag said.

Other significant fields of application where growth is expected are in clear brine fluids, which are mostly used in deep offshore oil drilling, and water treatment.

According to Schlag, bromine’s use in water treatment is predicted to show largest annual average growth rates of any bromine market, averaging around 6% over the next few years.

A fourth large and growing area of use is hydrogen bromide, which is used as a catalyst in purified terephthalic acid (PTA) production. PTA is a raw material used in making high performance, multi-purpose plastics such as polybutyl terephthalate (PBT), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and the bioplastic, polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT).

When it comes to bromine’s use in flame retardants, there are changes ahead for the chemical, Schlag explains.

“The brominated products that will be replaced are the brominated monomers. These will be partially replaced by brominated polymers. The amount of bromine will remain approximately the same per volume of plastic to be retarded,” he said.

In August this year, Albemarle and ICL announced that they were teaming up develop and market polymeric alternatives to hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) flame retardants, which are being widely phased out owing to toxicological concerns.

Albemarle has been working on an alternative polymeric flame retardant called GreenCrest, while ICL has launched its FR-122P product. Both compounds still contain bromine, but do not carry the apparent environmental health risks associated with HBCD.

While changes to legislation in the US and Europe is forcing a transition to new polymeric fire safety chemicals in these regions, both Albemarle and Chemtura have admitted they are experiencing resistance in persuading Asian markets to take up new, more expensive flame retardant products.

ICL has declined to comment on its own experiences in this field, but the company recently said it would increase the price of its elemental bromine and hydrobromic acid products by 20% for its Far East customers, citing margin pressures in its bromine business.

Bromine-free chemicals

Of more concern for producers of bromine is that some other brominated flame retardants will be replaced by non-brominated flame retardants. Manufacturers of PVC in cable mantling, for example, are now moving to use polymers that do not use brominated flame retardants.

Bromine is also being withdrawn from other industries, including the US beverages market, where brominated vegetable oil (BVO) has been used by some drinks companies as a flavour and colour emulsifier in citrus drinks to prevent citrus oils from phase separating.

In the last two years, both PepsiCo. and Coca Cola have announced that they will replace BVO in their citrus drinks with sucrose alternatives following popular pressure to drop the chemical, although both insisted BVO does not pose health risks to consumers.

Bromine compounds have a number of applications in photography, including making the light-sensitive component of photographic emulsions as well as in the development of film. However, since the invention and widespread adoption of digital photography, this market has shrunk to represent an insignificant volume of bromine consumption.

New markets

According to Schlag, opportunities exist to take up some of the slack in the bromine market left by the phase-out of bromine in its traditional uses.

“Clear brine fluids and water treatment are both growth areas with very good potential,” Schlag told IM.

“Deep sea drilling is becoming increasingly important, as is clean water, particularly in highly populated areas in fast growing Asian economies with sparse water resources,” he added.

Bromine could also benefit from the growing electrical vehicle (EV) market. Bromine compounds used to be used as a constituent of “anti-knock fluid” in leaded vehicle fuels, but this market has all but disappeared with the switch to unleaded petrol for new cars.

Now, bromine compounds are being tested in batteries for EVs and power storage solutions, although these are just one of a number of competing chemistries in this field.

 

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  • BIS campaign | 09 Nov 2014, 1:04 AM

    How is the 'Dead Sea a sustainable source of bromine' (as you put it) when the sea is drying up due to Israels over exploitation of the natural resources?