Anticipating robust demand for the specialty solvent acetonitrile, Ineos says it will build a world-scale plant at its site in Cologne, Germany.
Acetonitrile is generated as a coproduct in plants that make acrylonitrile, an intermediate for polymers and fibers. A typical acrylonitrile plant yields 2–4% acetonitrile, but only a handful of companies recover it. Ineos is the world’s largest supplier.
Acetonitrile is used in the extraction of butadiene. Chemists are familiar with it as a solvent for high-performance liquid chromatography. Because acetonitrile supply depends on acrylonitrile production, it is sometimes in short supply, such as in 2008, when acrylonitrile output was depressed because of the financial crisis.
Ineos shuttered an acrylonitrile complex and an accompanying acetonitrile unit in Seal Sands, England, in 2020. The firm continues to operate plants in Lima, Ohio, and Green Lake, Texas. In recent years, it has boosted capacity with technology that increases the proportion of acetonitrile produced in acrylonitrile reactors.
The new unit in Germany, where Ineos hasn’t previously extracted acetonitrile, will have 15,000 metric tons per year of capacity when it comes on line in late 2023 or early 2024. The company says it also plans to extract acetonitrile at an acrylonitrile plant it is building in Saudi Arabia.
“I’m especially pleased as this investment will bring back production capacity to Europe for this key product,” Hans Casier, CEO of Ineos Nitriles, says in an announcement. Part of Ineos’s rationale for expanding production is demand from firms making COVID-19 treatments.
Vivek Kumar, biopharma market development manager at the lab-chemical supplier Spectrum Chemical, says acetonitrile is growing as a solvent in the production of oligonucleotides used to prepare potential RNA vaccines. “In doing clinical trials, hundreds and thousands of these oligonucleotides have to be synthesized and screened before a lead molecule is identified for further development,” he says.
This area is booming. Twenty-eight RNA vaccines are in clinical trials for COVID-19, Kumar says. And the success of COVID-19 vaccines has led to enthusiasm for RNA-based treatments in other areas, such as cancer.
Acetonitrile is also used in the high-performance liquid chromatography purification of peptide drugs, another up-and-coming activity. “That consumes a ton of acetonitrile,” Kumar says.