Chemical market abuzz with activity

Updated 11 Apr 2020

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ISLAMABAD: In this March 30 photo, CDA workers spray disinfectant solution on buildings in Zero Point area as a precautionary measure against Covid-19. Sales of domestic and commercial disinfectants have seen a sharp rise in recent months as the country struggles with the pandemic.—APP
ISLAMABAD: In this March 30 photo, CDA workers spray disinfectant solution on buildings in Zero Point area as a precautionary measure against Covid-19. Sales of domestic and commercial disinfectants have seen a sharp rise in recent months as the country struggles with the pandemic.—APP

KARACHI: The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has pushed up the demand for soaps, hand sanitisers and disinfectants, there by pushing up demand for chemicals used for making these products.

Though hand sanitisers and alcohol wipes from quality brands are rarely available in the market, supermarkets have started procuring unknown brands which sell for a hefty price — at times Rs250 for a 100ml bottle. Similarly, unheard brands of floor cleaning liquids and bathroom cleaners have popped up on store shelves. Chlorine (household bleach) is fast becoming a sought-after liquid for ‘anti-viral tunnels’ that medical experts say are toxic.

A recent exercise by the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority found 23 sanitisers in the market to be ‘non-conforming’ to either in terms of pH or alcohol content.

On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that shares of Descon Oxychem Ltd shot up 53 per cent from March 25 on the back of spiking demand of hydrogen peroxide from leading banks who wish to use it as a disinfectant. “The demand for the disinfectant came just as textile companies, which account for 70pc of sales of the chemical, closed under the lockdown,” the report quoted a Descon official.

Meanwhile, sales of ethanol – produced from sugarcane molasses – have seen a slight rise locally.

“Local sales have taken up 10pc of ENA production which was previously not the case. Earlier, grade A ethanol (96pc purity) was exported while grade B (92pc) was being supplied for domestic consumption,” says Hira Ghazi, the director of Hisa Enterprises and an exporter of ethanol, clinker and cement.

“Since the pandemic, the government has issued a notification. Hand sanitisers are being manufactured using both isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and ethanol. Interestingly IPA is still not being imported in huge quantities,” says Ghazi.

Ethanol and IPA, which is imported from China, are often mixed to produce sanitisers, she says, adding: “Since the government’s di­­re­­ctives, ENA 96 is being used.”

There are currently 20 units in the country that produce ethanol.

The exports of a local plant are usually around 2,500 tonnes for grade A ethanol which is priced at $1,300-1,400 per tonne. Lo­­­­­­­­cally it is sold for Rs170 per litre.

The country is still exporting more ethanol. Most of the sugar processing plants are booked till the end of September for international orders, added Ghazi.

Pakistan’s ethanol production hovers around 500,000 tonnes per annum and of this barely 2-3pc was being used locally, says Dr Tara Chand, the chairman of Pakistan Sugar Millers Association (PSMA).

Currently there is routine production of around 3,000 tonnes per unit which includes ENA 96pc and the extra refined 99.9pc, the PSMA chairman said.

“The country’s consumption was barely 2-3pc and even after a boom in sanitiser sales, the demand will be max 5pc,” Dr Chand added.

He stressed that all alcohol based sanitisers are government approved.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020