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  • Wax Facts

    What is wax?

    The word "wax" usually refers to a variety of organic substances that are solid at ambient temperature but become free-flowing liquids at slightly higher temperatures. The chemical composition of waxes is complex, but normal alkanes are always present in high proportion and molecular weight profiles tend to be wide. The main commercial source of wax is crude oil but not all crude oil refiners produce wax. "Mineral" wax can also be produced from lignite. Plants, animals and even insects produce materials sold in commerce as "wax."

    What are types of waxes?

    • Paraffin and Microcrystalline waxes are derived from petroleum. They are easy to recover and offer a wide range of physical properties that can often be tailored by refining processes. Most producers offer two distinct types of petroleum waxes: paraffins, which are distinguished by large, well formed crystals; and microcrystallines, which are higher melting waxes with small, irregular crystals. Microcrystalline wax contains substantial proportions of branched and cyclic saturated hydrocarbons in addition to normal alkanes.
      • Some producers also sell "intermediate" wax, in which the boiling range is cut where the transition in crystal size and structure occur. Petroleum wax producers also characterize wax by degree of refinement; fully refined paraffin has oil content generally less than 0.5%, and fully-refined micro-crystalline less than 3%. "Slack wax," precursors to the fully refined versions in either case, would have oil content above 3%, and as high as 35% by weight. Paraffin wax produced from petroleum is essentially a pure mixture of normal and iso-alkanes without the esters, acids, etc. found in the animal and vegetable-based waxes.
       
    • Synthetic waxes have entered the wax market in the past 50 years. Polyethylene waxes are low molecular weight polyethylenes (less than 10,000 Mn) having wax-like properties made by either high-pressure or low-pressure (Zeigler-type catalyst) polymerization. All such waxes have the same basic structure, but the various production processes yield products with distinctly different properties, and these have a major impact on the use of products. Products from one manufacturer may satisfy one particular application, while product from a similar process will not work well.
    • Fischer-Tropsch (FT) wax is a synthetic wax produced by the polymerization of carbon monoxide under high pressure, a technology used in the emerging natural Gas to Liquid (GTL) projects. The hydrocarbon product of FT reaction is distilled to separate the mix into fuels products and waxes with melting points ranging from about 45 - 106ºC. Currently FT waxes are commercially produced in South Africa and Malaysia. It is estimated that the overall synthetic wax consumption in North America in 2010 was 420 million lbs., of which FT wax accounts for about 195 million lbs.
    • Alpha olefin waxes are synthetically derived from ethylene via a Ziegler-Natta catalyst. The process results in a Schulz-Flory distribution of alpha olefins ranging from C4 through C30+. These are distilled into the individual carbon fractions or carbon fraction blends. Due to the high melting points of the waxes, C20 and higher carbon numbers are fractionated into blends. Because of the linear double bond present in normal alpha olefins, these waxes can be functionalized or reacted to create other derivatives. They can also be used for their physical properties such as hardness and melting point. End uses for alpha olefin waxes include lube oil additives, PVC lubricants, candles, oilfield chemicals and personal care applications.
    • Montan wax is derived by solvent extraction of lignite. The earliest production of montan wax on a commercial scale was in Germany during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Germany continues to lead the world in production of montan wax; although some montan wax is produced in the United States from the Ione lignite bed in California. The composition of montan wax varies geographically with production, but includes varying amounts of wax, resin and asphalt.
    • Other mineral waxes include peat waxes, ozokerite and ceresin waxes
    • Beeswax has been traded for over 2,000 years and references to "wax" before the 19th century typically meant beeswax. Yellow beeswax is secreted by bees to build honeycombs; the empty comb is melted in boiling water to recover the wax.
    • Other animal-based waxes include lanolin from the wool of sheep; ambergris produced in the intestines of sperm whales; and tallow from beef fat.
    • Carnauba wax is recovered from a variety of palm tree which grows almost exclusively in northeastern Brazil. Carnauba wax forms on the fronds of the trees and is recovered by cutting and drying the fronds, then mechanically removing the wax. Impurities are removed from the wax by melting and filtering, or centrifuging.
    • Candelilla wax is harvested from shrubs grown in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua and in Texas. The entire mature plant is uprooted and immersed in boiling water acidified with sulfuric acid; the wax floats to the surface for recovery.
    • Other vegetable-based waxes include Japan wax, produced on the berries of a small tree native to Japan and China; ouricury wax, obtained from the fronds of another type of palm tree growing in Brazil; rice-bran wax, extracted from crude rice bran; and jojoba, obtained from the seeds of the jojoba plant grown in parts of Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico and the United States, and soy wax which is produced by hydrogenated soybean oil.

    Source: Global Wax Industry 2010: Market Analysis and Opportunities, Kline & Company

    Product Source  Melt Pt/Pen 25C  Main Uses 
    Petroleum -- Paraffin Crude Oil 46-68/10-20 Various
    Petroleum -- microcrystalline Crude Oil 54-102/3-100 Various
    Fischer-Tropsch waxes Synthesis 45-106/1-41 Various
    Polyethylene Synthesis 85-140/3 Various
    Montan Lignite 80/10 Carbon paper ink
    Waxes from insects, plants and animals Bees, soy, palm trees, plants, beef fat, etc. 40-84/2-63 Inks, Polishes

    The Versatility of Waxes

    • As supplies of limited minerals have declined, innovators have developed ways to replace the functionality of these materials by modifying other waxes; this is a trend that continues today.
    • Microcrystalline hydrocarbon and synthetic waxes may be modified to meet specific market needs, most often to match performance characteristics of animal or vegetable waxes. In most cases, the first step is air oxidation of the wax, with or without catalysts. An alternative approach is to react the wax with a carboxylic acid at high temperature. Oxidized wax can be further modified by saponification or esterification at the carboxyl sites. Oxidized wax is easily emulsified in water through the use of surfactants or simple soaps, and is widely used in many coating and polish applications. Petroleum waxes modified in this way can compete in specific areas with vegetable and insect waxes.
    • Polymers of higher olefins (e.g. Carbon Number>20) have wax-like properties and are sold as synthetic waxes. The polymerization process yields highly branched materials with broad molecular weight distributions. Properties of the individual products are highly dependent on the olefin monomers and polymerization conditions. Melting points range from 54 - 74oC. The unique structure makes these products very effective when used in additive amounts to modify the properties of paraffin wax, primarily for use in candles. The products can increase the hardness and opacity of the paraffin with minimal impact on cloud point or viscosity. Other uses include mold release for polyurethane foams, additives for casting wax, and additives for leather treating.
    • The wax market has an interesting history, one over 2,000 years old where vegetable, mineral and synthetic materials come together to serve a wide variety of needs. Wax is truly a versatile product whose unique properties pave the way for a myriad of uses. The most interesting part of this is the ability of wax to re-invent itself over time. If you look back over the last 40 years you would recognize wax products in every home as part of bread wrap, waxed paper food wraps, cold drink cups and milk containers. Walk into your kitchen today, and you will still find wax used in most of these applications, including in the materials used to build that room. New uses for wax have been found time and again, and the wax market is as vital today as it was since before the Romans walked the Via Appia.

    What are the major wax markets?

    North American wax consumption is estimated at approximately 3 billion pounds a year, split between two major markets, packaging materials and all others. Although packaging represents only 30% of the market, the world has historically viewedthis segment as the entire wax business, and continues to today. Think of how wax was used thirty years ago, and how it is still being used - waxed paper, milk cartons, paper drinking cups, etc. Packaging was and still is one of the primary markets for wax. However, packaging uses for wax are currently forecast to continue to decline, while overall wax demand is expected to grow in line with economic growth (currently 2-3% per annum).

    This growth in demand is driven by a number of new uses for the material. Markets for wax are truly diverse, ranging from simple fuel in manufactured fire logs and candles, to practical applications such as adhesives, anti-oxidation agents in tires, and sizing in construction materials, to even more exotic uses in cosmetics and foods. Although, the largest single consumer of wax in North America remains the packaging area, followed by candles, and then building materials.

    Here with some examples:

    Building materials: wax is added as a water repellent in the production of wood-based manufactured composite boards such as particle board, medium density, oriented strand and other board products.

    Candles: one of the oldest uses of wax, but still vital. No longer used for primary illumination, candles are the fastest growing segment of the wax market with new decorative and therapeutic uses.

    Chlorinated paraffins: chemicals manufactured by chlorination of paraffin waxes. The largest application for chlorinated paraffins is as a plasticiser and flame-retardant in flexible PVC. It is also used as an extreme pressure-additive for metalworking fluids and other lubricants.

    Corrugated board: food-grade wax is applied to corrugated containers in order to provide strength and waterproofing for food packaging during transportation.

    Coatings: wax can be used to form a coating that allows oxygen to pass but not water; generating numerous applications in such diverse areas as cosmetics, food, packaging, furniture, time release properties, etc.

    Flexible packaging: Food-grade waxes and wax blends are used in laminating compounds and surface coatings to provide strength, to waterproofing, and improve appearance and moisture-vapor transmission.

    Cosmetics and pharmaceuticals: fully-refined wax is non-toxic, and many products are approved for direct use in food and personal care formulations. Waxes are widely used in the cosmetic industry in products such as lipstick, mascara, moisturizing creams and sunblock.

    Chewing gum: chewing gum base is a compound of elastomers, resin and food-grade wax to which other materials are added to produce chewing gum. Hard, high melt-point waxes are used in this application, including microcrystalline and candelilla waxes.

    Crayons: Food grade wax provides the solid structure for a crayon and, since most crayon users are young children, its non-toxic characteristics are critical.

    Fire logs: a modern convenience product, wax acts as both a binder and as fuel.

    Food: Food grade wax is used to cover certain types of cheese that would dehydrate if not properly protected. It is sprayed on citrus and other fruit to protect from oxidation and enhance appearance, and in meat and bone wraps.

    Hot melt adhesives: waxes are present in most hot melt adhesive formulations to control the viscosity of the adhesive and contribute to open time, flexibility and elongation.

    Inks: graphical printing inks include wax in their formulation as an anti-scuff agent.

    Investment casting: in the "lost wax" method of casting jewelry, and other industrial products, a wax model of the piece is made and used to create a clay mold. The wax is melted out and the clay is used to cast the final piece.

    Polishes: the application of waxes to wooden floors to improve their appearance and provide protection dates back several hundred years. It serves to retard the penetration of air and moisture, thereby increasing the life of the flooring material as well as preventing abrasion by surface grit.

    PVC: two different lubricants are used in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride thermoplastic: internal and external; and two different types of wax are used in the lubricants. Internal lubricants are formulated to help PVC flow in the manufacturing process by forming a solution with PVC. External lubricants are not soluble in PVC and can produce a film between the PVC and its extrusion equipment.

    Tire and rubber: wax is a vital component in rubber tire formulations and is added for protection from atmospheric ozone that will "dry" unprotected rubber, causing cracking that compromises the strength of the tire. Wax creates a physical barrier between the tire surface and the atmosphere.

    U.S. Wax Production Data

    U.S. wax production grew at a compound rate of about 3.1% per annum from 1982 to 1998, when the impact of industry consolidation and new base oil technology became significant. The production peak in 1996 is exaggerated due to product definition issues, but the trend line is true. Between 1998 and 2002, annual wax production fell from 2,480 MM# to 1900 MM#, about 23% as several small base oil plants shut down and another large one converted from MEK dewaxing process to wax hydroisomerization technology in order to manufacture higher quality Group II base oils. Wax imports have grown steadily throughout this period, about 6.1% per annum according to Energy Information Agency (EIA) reporting, while wax exports grew at an annual rate of 9.1%. In 1953, there were 67 base oil plants in the U.S., about half of them producing some type of wax. Today, there are eight U.S. wax producers.

    Who are the American wax producers?

    Refiner Location Finished(1) Unfinished2

    American Refining Group

    Bradford, Pa.

     

    0.6

    Calumet Lubricants Company

    Shreveport, La.

    1.2

    0.6

    Sonneborn

    Petrolia, Pa.

    0.1

     

    Ergon – West Virginia

    Newell, W.Va.

     

    1.1

    ExxonMobil Corporation

    Baton Rouge, La.

    2.2

     

    ExxonMobil Corporation

    Beaumont, Texas

    1.4

    0.5

    Flying J

    N. Salt Lake City, Utah

     

    2.4

    The International Group

    Smethport, Pa.

    1.2

    0.3

    Holly Corp.

    Tulsa, Okla.

    1.0

    1.2

    Total - US

    7.1

    6.7

     

     

     

     

    Imperial Oil Ltd.

    Strathcona, Alberta

     

    0.5

    The International Group

    Toronto, Ontario

    1.5

     

    Petro-Canada Lubricants

    Mississauga, Ontario

     

    1.8

    Total - Canada

    1.5

    5.5

     

     

     

     

    Total Mexico

    1.7

    GRAND TOTAL

    8.6

    18.9

    (1) Thousands of barrels per calendar day

    Source: NPRA

    In North America, eight companies currently manufacture finished or semi-refined waxes at nine locations in North America; not all companies produce both semi-refined and fully refined waxes. Product distribution is about 40/60 between finished and semi-refined, though this can be misleading because semi-refined is sold as feedstock to fully-refined producers, as well as being sold into end-use markets. A typical wax producer in North America produces wax concurrently with base oils at an integrated solvent dewaxing/deoiling unit, although there are also "stand-alone" deoiling plants producing finished wax from purchased feedstocks. An average finished wax plant produces about 1,000 barrels a day of product, or 100 MM pounds a year. About half of U.S. wax manufacturers produce low oil content, finished waxes, and the rest simply recover slack wax from their operations (although one producer sells residual material from waxy crude without further processing). Curiously, no integrated Canadian refiner or Caribbean plants produce finished wax. North American producers operate only solvent deoiling processes. There are other technologies available for deoiling, including sweating and fractional crystallization; the latter process is the only practical alternate for large scale production. After deoiling, product wax is typically finished by hydrogenation or clay treating to decolorize it and assure FDA compliance where required.

    U.S. Imports & Exports of Waxes

    With the exception of 2000, wax imports stayed within 1,000 barrels per day of exports from 1999 – 2005. This ratio began to change in 2006 with the tariff on parrifin wax candles imported from the People's Republic of China. However, in subsequent years, the delta narrowed as imports, particularly from Southeast Asia, entered the U.S. market.

    U.S. Wax Imports by Type

    Source Countries for U.S. Imports 2010

    Source: International Trade Agency

    How will wax manufacturing develop in the future?

    Given the current state of flux in the North American lubricants business, there are three strategic concerns for its wax co-products: attrition of base oil manufacturing facilities, the rising trend of imports and the advent of new process technologies, specifically Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) and Coal-to-Liquids technologies capable of co-producing premium waxes along with sulfur free fuels and premium lubricants.

    • Base oil refinery attrition is the factor with the most influence on wax production in the past twenty years. A historical view of North American paraffinic base oil manufacture shows a clear trend to consolidation. This consolidation is bad news for the wax buyer since bigger plants have installed hydroisomerization technology that converts wax to base oil and eliminates wax as a co-product. To the extent that increasing demand for low volatility, high VI stocks for engine oil drives investment in lubricants, there may be further conversion of existing capacity to isomerization with resultant decrease in wax manufacturing. NPRA estimates that approximately 25% of finished wax capacity could be considered "at risk" for such conversion, and about the same proportion of semi-finished wax. This represents approximately 500 MM pounds per year of wax products, roughly twice the present import amount. However, many current wax manufacturers are independent operators and not major international integrated companies. These players are considered less likely to move to the new technology than the integrated majors. The two major integrated companies among wax producers have already committed themselves to technology choices, one reducing its capacity by a hydroisomerization conversion, and the other maintaining its wax capacity by developing alternate processing for its base oil products. Given that the capacity of one production plant is dedicated to the "export gap" defined previously, it is believed that further rationalization, if it occurs, will not seriously affect supply, and that supply shortages can be made up by imports. The other side of the supply question is how much can domestic supply be expanded? Given the relatively high cost of building process units and the low price of import waxes, it is unlikely that there would be grassroots construction of a wax deoiling plant. However, one can expect to see the usual "capacity creep" through debottlenecking, but no grassroots construction.
    • Imports are a growing part of the North American wax picture. China has large production volumes of waxy crude and a fairly large processing capability, and is a ready source of wax to meet the needs of the North American and other markets.
    • The third strategic influence on wax is the potential new supply that could be introduced by large-scale Gas-to-Liquid (GTL) operations, based on Fischer- Tropsch (FT) synthesis. There are presently a number of GTL projects announced to build large-scale commercial units, although not all have wax plants. The technology of producing wax by FT synthesis has been proven for many years and there are presently two FT-based plants operating in South Africa and Malaysia. GTL could multiply the supply of these waxes many times. A basic GTL plant uses FT to synthesize a wide-boiling paraffinic "gas oil" that is then refined into finished products. The main interest in GTL is to produce environmentally friendly fuels, in which case the FT product is hydrocracked and dewaxed: expected fuels yield would be about 50 - 80% from such a feedstock. The remaining material can be processed for ultra-high VI lube base oil or wax. A world-scale GTL plant thus has the capability to produce a large volume of wax. However a proliferation of GTL plants would depend on many factors, including the vagaries of crude and natural gas markets. With the past and current changes to the wax market described above, one may expect in the future to see the same evolution that has taken place for the past 2,000 years. Smart operators will continue to find new ways to take advantage of the special properties of this unique material, and smart producers will continue to find ingenious and efficient methods to meet their customers’ requirements.

    ASTM/IP Standards Applicable to Petroleum Waxes

    ASTM IP Title

    D 87

    55

    Melting Point of Petroleum Wax

    D 127

    133

    Drop Melting Point of Petroleum Wax, Including Petrolatum

    D 156

     

    Saybolt Color of Petroleum Products (Saybolt Chromometer Method)

    D 445

    71

    Kinematic Viscosity of Transparent and Opaque Liquids (and the Calculation of Dynamic Viscosity)

    D 612

     

    Carbonizable Substances in Paraffin Wax

    D 721

    158

    Oil Content of Petroleum Waxes

    D 937

    179

    Cone Penetration of Petrolatum

    D 938

    76

    Congealing Point of Petroleum Waxes, Including Petrolatum

    D 1160

     

    Distillation of Petroleum Products at Reduced Pressure

    D 1321

     

    Needle Penetration of Petroleum Waxes

    D 1465

     

    Blocking and Picking of Petroleum Wax

    D 1500

    196

    ASTM Color of Petroleum Products (ASTM Color Scale)

    D 1832

     

    Peroxide Number of Petroleum Wax

    D 1833

    185

    Odor of Petroleum Wax

    D 2008

     

    Ultraviolet Absorbance and Absorptivity of Petroleum Products

    D 2423

     

    Method for Surface Wax on Waxed Paper or Cardboard

    D 2534

     

    Coefficient of Kinetic Friction for Wax Coatings

    D 2669

     

    Apparent Viscosity of Petroleum Waxes Compounded with Additives (Hot Melts)

    D 2887

     

    Boiling Range Distribution of Petroleum Fractions by Gas Chromatography

    D 3235

     

    Solvent Extractables in Petroleum Waxes

    D 3236

    Apparent Viscosity of Hot Melt Adhesives and Coating Materials

    D 3344

     

    Total Wax Loading of Corrugated Paperboard

    D 4175

     

    Petroleum, Petroleum Products, and Lubricants

    E 179

     

    Selection of Geometric Conditions for Measurement of Reflection and Transmission Properties of Materials

    D 3954

     

    Dropping Point of Waxes

    Source: ASTM