Oxygen Bleach on the Rise
BLEACHING- Diverging Trends Drive Percarbonate
European demand for the laundry bleaching agent sodium percarbonate is being driven by public and government concerns over the boron content of the main competing bleach, sodium perborate.
U.S. percarbonate demand, on the other hand, is being driven mainly by a TV pitchman named Billy Mays.
Mays is the public face of OxiClean, a stain-removing powder marketed by Orange Glo International,
a small but fast-growing cleaning products company that sells its wares partly over the Internet. OxiClean, launched in 1997, is a mixture of sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate sold in a plastic tub. It's promoted as a household cleaner and laundry detergent booster with amazing stain-destroying properties.
Although chemically simple compared with some of the sophisticated cleaning products marketed by larger companies, OxiClean has been phenomenally successful. Thanks mainly to OxiClean and a line of orange oil-containing spray cleaners, Orange Glo broke $300 million in sales last year and for the past three years has been on Inc. magazine's list of the 10 fastest growing private companies.
In a reversal of the usual evolutionary process, several of the big soapers are responding to Orange Glo with their own products: Clorox Oxygen Action from Clorox, Shout OxyPower from S. C. Johnson, and All Oxi-Active (which contains sodium perborate instead of percarbonate) from Unilever.
Sodium percarbonate makers are reaping the benefits of all this new product activity. Roy Hill, percarbonate business manager at the Solvay Interox division of Solvay, says household products like OxiClean are the biggest drivers of percarbonate demand today. Bleach-containing powdered laundry detergents are still an important market, he says, but liquid detergents continue to take away market share from them.
Partly in response to the new market, Solvay Interox is building a second sodium percarbonate plant in Deer Park, Texas, that will add 50,000 metric tons per year of capacity by the end of the year. The company will use a dry reaction process and incorporate a stabilization coating to help overcome percarbonate's traditional stability problems.
In contrast, Solvay closed its Deer Park sodium perborate plant at the beginning of 2002, according to Hill. Demand was falling, he says, because of a combination of increasing consumer preference for liquid detergents and switching to percarbonate as the bleach ingredient of choice in powdered detergents.
OCI Chemicals, the U.S. unit of South Korea's DC Chemical, is also doing well, according to Chris Fraser, president and chief executive officer. The company became the second U.S. percarbonate producer early in 2002 when it opened a 40,000-metric-ton plant in Decatur, Ala.
"The use of percarbonate has grown dramatically in the U.S. over the past couple of years, so our business is developing nicely," Fraser says. He attributes most of the growth to the new cleaning products, adding that use in powdered laundry detergents is growing as well, because declines in powder detergent market share are more than offset by gains due to formula changes from perborate to percarbonate.
Meanwhile, the move away from perborate in Europe, where powdered and tablet laundry detergents dominate the market, is creating a separate percarbonate boom there. In response, Kemira doubled capacity in Helsingborg, Sweden, early last year and FMC's Foret unit will have converted part of its sodium perborate plant in La Zaida, Spain, to percarbonate by the second half of this year.
MedAvox, a Degussa unit, is building a percarbonate plant in Bussi, Italy, set to open this summer. And Degussa will soon open a percarbonate plant in Rheinfelden, Germany, after having closed a perborate plant at the site late last year. "Sodium percarbonate offers economic, ecological, and production engineering advantages," Degussa says.
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