As the coronavirus pandemic continues, specific chemical products are experiencing a natural surge in demand. But how are chemical companies handling this sudden rush for essential chemical products upon which lives depend.

Take for example, medical oxygen, an industrial gas that has seen a sudden jump in urgent requisitions as it provides an obvious relief against the most severe cases of COVID-19.

Thankfully, the news is upbeat, as despite the European Industrial Gases Association reporting an increase in orders of between 5 and 10 times, demand is being met.

Similarly, a spokesman for BOC, a subsidiary of industrial chemical supplier Linde, is also hopeful, stating that, “We remain confident that we will be able to maintain essential gas supplies within the UK.” This is due to the company operating cylinder-filling stations both day and night while also boosting the number of daily cylinder deliveries.

Air Liquide is also predicting a supply sufficiency despite a five-fold increase in demand in Italy and Eastern France. While John Raquet, the CEO of the gases media company Gasworld, states that, “Although a few hospitals have experienced low levels of oxygen or a lack of cylinders, there will not be any national shortages—even though demand will increase further, as many countries have not [at time of speaking] seen a peak in virus cases yet.”

There has been an equally robust response from chemical businesses which manufacture disinfecting wipes and sprays, the raw materials for which can be a relatively specialised chemical product.

As the chemical industry journal CE&N explains, “Quaternary ammonium compounds [quats], 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.”

Producing quats requires, fatty alcohols, ethanol, and isopropyl alcohol, as well as benzyl chloride, ethylbenzyl chloride, and methyl chloride.

Despite these specific ingredient requirements, anti-viral cleaning product manufacture is in full swing. As Max Lauwiner, head of global operations for Lonza Specialty Ingredients, one of the major producers of disinfectant wipes and sprays in the US, notes, the company’s Illinois plant is operating at, “… full utilization despite intermittent delays in raw material supply due to logistics restrictions, freight capacity, and container availability.”

Most notable of these supply shortfalls are for ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, although the situation seems calmer than in Europe.

But the supply chain pressure caused by the virus’s rush is still evident. “I’m hunting constantly for the quats,” says Ryan Cotroneo, chief technology officer at UNX Industries, an industrial cleaning product maker, “and really relying on strategic relationships.”

This is in large part because their business imports so many of the raw materials they require from overseas. Once those chemical feedstocks were diverted away from American customers to boost production of wipes and sprays at home, it left a shortfall in the global market.

However, the chemical industry as a whole is confident that it can weather the storm.

“We have not experienced shortages or supply constraints that would keep us from meeting typical demand for our products,” says Richard Rehg, vice president of commercial for Pilot, another major US disinfectant producer. “In fact, there has been a surge in demand, and for some products we are able to ship above normal levels.”

There is also a belief that the market will react accordingly, however long the coronavirus pandemic lasts. As Steve Bennett, the head of scientific and regulatory affairs at the trade group Household & Commercial Products Associationstates, “The supply chain is resilient and will rebound, but it does take a little bit of time.”

Hopefully, cool heads like his can keep the raw material supply chains flowing to keep people healthy and to cure the sick. For now, chemical suppliers should stay focused on the task at hand. They should also enjoy the moment, for at last, the public is rooting for the chemical industry to succeed.

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