Example – constrained market for acetonitrile

Generic product activity or name

Methyl cyanide

Context and background
Acetonitrile is a very useful chemical in the pharmaceutical industry since it can be mixed with both water and most organic solvents and has relatively low toxicity and chemical reactivity. The pharmaceutical industry is reported to consume approximately 70 per cent of the world’s supply of acetonitrile in analytical settings, such as Gas Chromatography (GC) or High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)(Bonilla, 2010).

The only production route for acetonitrile is as a by-product in acrylonitrile synthesis. This is reflected in what has been called the “Great Acetonitrile Shortage” (Bonilla, 2010) caused by the reduction in demand for acrylonitrile for acrylic fibres during the worldwide economic slowdown that started in 2008.

Presentation of example
Currently three producers account for about 64% of the global capacity. The demand has experienced steady growth (IHS 2014). The growth in demand combined with reduced production has affected the pharmaceutical and analytical industries by shortage in supply and peaking of prices. Some analytical laboratories and pharmaceutical producers have had to, where possible, switch to alternative solvents to be used for non-sensitive operations such as flushing pipes, cleaning reactors and other applications. The high demand situation is maintained by growth in China and India (IHS 2014). For the reverse-phase (RP) HPLC ultraviolet (UV) application where acetonitrile is most heavily employed, the UV absorbance characteristics and solubilising properties of Acetonitrile are unmatched among other solvents.  However, depending upon the chromatography type and the detection wavelengths in use, it may be possible to replace acetonitrile with methanol (Bonilla 2010).

Thus we can conclude that acetonitrile is a by-product without significant alternative production routes and it tends to be in short supply and that the constrained market is leading to reductions in consumption downstream. The marginal consumers can be identified as analytical laboratories and pharmaceutical productions where acetonitrile is substituted by other solvents for some less critical cleaning operations. Methanol appears to be a likely substitute.

Information sources used
For this example we used online sources only.

IHS (2014) Acetonitrile. https://www.ihs.com/products/acetonitrile-chemical-economics-handbook.html (accessed 17. december 2014).

Bonilla, R (2010) Cost-Effective Solutions to the World-Wide Acetonitrile Shortage. Phamaceutical Processing, 27. April 2010.
http://www.pharmpro.com/article/2010/04/cost-effective-solutions-world-wide-acetonitrile-shortage (accessed 17. december 2014).

Author of this example
Bo Weidema


How to reference this
Weidema B P (2014), Example –constrained market for acetonitrile. Version: 2014-12-18 www.consequential-lca.org