Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Department of Chemical Supply Chain Difficulties: Ukrainian neon, invasion edition

Via the New York Times, this news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the disruptions to the various flows of chemical products: 
...Automakers could see shortages of other key materials. Ukraine and Russia are both substantial sources for palladium and platinum, used in catalytic converters, as well as aluminum, steel and chrome.

Semiconductor manufacturers are warily eyeing global stocks of neon, xenon and palladium, necessary to manufacture their products. Makers of potato chips and cosmetics could face shortages of sunflower oil, the bulk of which is produced in Russia and Ukraine...

 A brief Google search led me to this comment from the Korea Herald

Semiconductors are also expected to suffer collateral damage from the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine is a major producer of rare gases essential for chips such as neon, argon, krypton and xenon. In particular, Ukraine produces almost 70 percent of the world’s neon gas.

As Korea imports 23 percent of neon, 30.7 percent of krypton and 17.8 percent of xenon from Ukraine, the crisis can potentially push up their prices and cause complications in their supply chains. 

Why does Ukraine produce so much neon? A fascinating reason from the past, apparently: 

Neon was regarded as a strategic resource in the former Soviet Union, because it was believed to be required for the intended production of laser weapons for missile and satellite defence purposes in the 1980s. Accordingly, all major air separation units in the Soviet Union were equipped with neon, but also krypton and xenon, enrichment facilities or, in some cases, purification plants (cf. Sections 5.4 and 5.5). The domestic Soviet supply of neon was extremely large but demand low."

- "Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, global crude neon production was approximately 500–600 million l/a (= 500,000–600,000 m3/a). It was dominated by far by large-scale air separation units associated with metallurgical combines in Russia and Ukraine. Simultaneously, demand was estimated at around 300 million l/a (cf. Section 4.2). In the years between 1990 and 2012, therefore, most crude neon was not purified, but released into the atmosphere, because there was no customer base."

(If you don't want to trust a translated German source from Y Combinator, there's also this Japanese article from 2016 that says much the same thing.) 

Can't imagine that this is good for the global economy in the short run, although it will be interesting to see if yet another insult to a near-single source encourages more suppliers to enter the noble gas markets in the long run... 

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