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Specialty Chemicals


Disinfectant demand from coronavirus concerns challenges specialty chemical supply chain

As wipes and sprays sell out, quaternary ammonium compound makers try to keep up

by Alex Tullo and Craig Bettenhausen
April 15, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 15

Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Many disinfecting wipes use quaternary ammonium compounds such as benzalkonium chloride to kill germs.

With demand for disinfectant wipes and sprays soaring from medical professionals and consumers seeking to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, producers of quaternary ammonium disinfectant compounds are seeing orders spike. They say their plants are running well, but they are still struggling with the unusually high demand and intermittent problems obtaining raw materials.

Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Lysol wipes, says it faces unprecedented demand for wipes and other disinfectant products and is doing everything it can to produce as much as possible. Its competitor, Clorox, says it is “working around the clock” to meet the surge.

Quaternary ammonium compounds, the active ingredients in many such products, work against viruses by stripping them of their lipid envelope, leaving them unable to penetrate cells. Most disinfectants of this type need about 10 minutes of dwell time to fully disinfect hard surfaces.

The main producers of quaternary ammonium compounds in the US are Lonza, Pilot Chemical, and Stepan. They make quats by reacting tertiary amines with alkyl halides. The tertiary amines are made from ammonia and alcohols.

Max Lauwiner, head of global operations for Lonza Specialty Ingredients, says the company’s Mapleton, Illinois, plant, where it produces quats, is operating at “full utilization despite intermittent delays in raw material supply due to logistics restrictions, freight capacity, and container availability.”

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The raw materials affected include fatty alcohols, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol, as well as benzyl chloride, ethylbenzyl chloride, and methyl chloride. The supply situations for ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are the most acute, Lauwiner says.

Richard Rehg, vice president of commercial for Pilot, says his company is also managing through the crisis. “We have not experienced shortages or supply constraints that would keep us from meeting typical demand for our products,” he says. “In fact, there has been a surge in demand, and for some products we are able to ship above normal levels.”

Stepan did not comment by the deadline for this article.

Upstream, Valtris, a US maker of benzyl chloride, reports no material shortages or disruption to its operations. It is also reporting increased demand for its products due to their use in disinfectants and other critical products.

Despite assurances from suppliers, cleaning product companies are feeling the pinch as they attempt to fulfill their own piles of orders. “I’m hunting constantly for the quats,” says Ryan Cotroneo, chief technology officer at the industrial and institutional cleaning product maker UNX Industries, “and really relying on strategic relationships.”

A lot of raw materials for quats normally come from overseas, Cotroneo says, but those suppliers aren’t exporting right now, so US firms have had to find domestic replacements. Companies that make disinfecting wipes also face a shortage of specialized containers and fabric for the products, he adds.

Industry watchers are confident that any supply problems won’t last long. “The supply chain is resilient and will rebound,” says Steve Bennett, head of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Household & Commercial Products Association, a trade group. ”But it does take a little bit of time.”


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