Supply chain difficulties are affecting chemical industry too

An image showing a ship fire being extinguished

Source: © James MacDonald/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Containers of potassium amyl xanthate caught fire after the Zim Kingston cargo ship was caught in a storm

The two most irritating words to hear these days must be ‘supply chain’. It seems to be the cause of all life’s problems. Not enough toilet paper? Supply chain. Grocery store running low on your favourite ice cream? Supply chain. Prices going through the roof for things that used to have a stable price? You got it – the broken supply chain is to blame.

This is also true for the chemical industry around the world, which relies heavily on chemical inputs that have to travel on trucks, ships and trains to get to their final destination. Molecules that start in China or India may have a destination in Puerto Rico, Switzerland or Ireland before meeting a patient or another end user.

Having worked in this industry for over a decade, the current crisis in logistics feels even more difficult than the peak of the pandemic in early 2020, where the main difficulty seemed to be navigating the difficulties of social distancing and the challenges of remote working at a chemical plant. Back then the purchase orders from customers would come, the bill of materials would get made, the raw materials would be ordered, and they would show up. The truck driver might have to take a temperature check before entering the facility and everyone had to wear masks in the office, but that was it. Shortages were generally due to unusually high demand – if you were a new user of isopropyl alcohol, you were going to have to wait in line after the hospitals and hand sanitiser manufacturers got their supplies.

Much of the present difficulty in getting orders has to do with the delays in ocean shipments, which is how much of the world’s goods travels. This isn’t any different for the chemical industry, which requires low cost shipment internationally. Yes, some chemicals are considered safe enough to be flown on cargo aircraft in bulk, but you’ll have to think carefully about whether it is worth your money to battle the laptops and fresh flowers of the world for that space. Ports are overloaded, ships are having to wait in line, and because of that, shipments of chemicals are late – and because of that, revenues of chemical companies are suffering.

I would not suggest sending a container of isopropyl chloride across the south Pacific during the warmer months

Shipping chemicals across the ocean takes some planning. Some chemicals can stand all kinds of temperature fluctuations. There probably aren’t too many concerns about sending a container full of sodium benzoate through the Panama Canal with its tropical temperatures or across the North Atlantic during the winter. It will probably arrive intact. I would not suggest sending a container of isopropyl chloride (boiling point 35°C) across the south Pacific during the warmer months where temperatures reach the low 30°C range easily. You might start with a full container of product at the shipping port, but you’ll have an empty container on delivery – and a very annoyed ship captain.

Of course, there are means of controlling the temperature of chemicals, even on oceangoing ships. You can rent or purchase a refrigerated container or a temperature-controlled tank to transport your chemical. It will work hard (as long as it’s plugged in!) to keep your chemical in the desired temperature range and your raw material or product from decomposing. However, if your temperature-controlled tank is not working properly, the ship’s captain and crew will identify your container as malfunctioning and promptly boot it off the ship at the next port.

You’re now in a race to preserve the product. If your container is unplugged at its new port or if the refrigeration unit is indeed malfunctioning, the temperature will begin drifting. If a fix is needed, you’ll have to rely on the repair people (who may not speak your language!) at that particular port to not be afraid of your container of chemicals, or you’ll have to fly one of your people to come and fix your container so it can get out on the next ship.

This is a pain, but at least you’ll have an opportunity to rescue your precious material. That wasn’t the case recently for the shippers of some potassium amyl xanthate. Due to a storm in the waters off Victoria, Canada, this material was likely exposed to water, and because of that, caught fire. The crew of the ship sprayed the containers with water as long as they could, until they recognised the risks of emitting flammable carbon disulfide from the reaction of water with the amyl xanthate. The fire eventually went out, but you can be sure this product wasn’t good anymore. The people waiting for that material to come into the port, and the shipper and manufacturer waiting to get paid on the delivery, will have to wait longer – just like all of us these days.