Three technologies change the ethylene manufacturing paradigm
2:34 PM MST | February 27, 2014 | By STEVEN COHEN
Seventy years after ExxonMobil invented steam cracking, the foundation of the ethylene industry, we finally have three new technologies with the potential to transform ethylene production. It’s high time.
I have been around the ethylene and derivatives industry for over 50 years. I began with a thesis on steam cracking at Northeastern University in the ‘60s, later had a co-op assignment at Stone and Webster designing cracking furnaces and fractionation units, and ultimately was responsible for the product management and technology licensing activities of Union Carbide’s Unipol gas-phase polyethylene. In all those years, I saw only modest change in the ethylene production process.
Other industry segments such as polyolefins, antifreeze, synthetic fuels, and oxo alcohols witnessed significant advances such as low-pressure polyethylene (LPPE), propylene glycol (PG), Fischer-Tropsch (FT) and low pressure oxo-alcohols (LPO). By contrast, changes in ethylene production amounted to incremental improvements to the cracking process such as reordering distillation process steps, small furnace modifications, and improved heat recovery.
However, several announcements from the last few years show that change has indeed come to the ethylene process technology business.
One of these involves an “old” technology that has never been fully commercialized -- Union Carbide’s “Ethoxene” technology. First offered for licensing in 1985, Ethoxene is a catalytic process that converts ethane to ethylene (and acetic acid) with economics superior to steam cracking. Ethoxene was taken off the market in the mid 80’s, not for technical reasons at all, but for business reasons related to Union Carbide. About two and a half years ago, Aither -- a start-up being incubated by Matric, a non-profit operating at the former Union Carbide site in West Virginia – announced plans to commercialize the Ethoxene Process. I have been closely involved with this effort, serving as Aither’s marketing director until the end of 2013.
Perhaps six months earlier than Aither's announcement, Siluria, a venture capital-funded start-up developing technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, revealed plans to commercialize its proprietary oxidative coupling of methane (OCM), which directly converts methane to ethylene. This is a catalytic process like Aither’s, but it also leverages nano-materials and biological templates to make the catalysts. On January 15, Siluria announced that it has partnered with Braskem to explore OCM’s feasibility, including the construction of a demonstration plant in La Porte, TX, which Siluria expects to bring online in the fourth quarter.
As it happens, January has been a big month for new ethylene technologies. Just one week before the news from Siluria, ExxonMobil announced that its new steam cracker in Singapore can produce ethylene directly from a wide range of feedstocks, from light gases to heavy liquids -- including crude oil – completely avoiding the refining steps necessary to produce naphtha.
We finally have three paradigm-shifting technologies for ethylene manufacturing: at least two relating to new process technologies, and two relating to new feedstocks. In my view, the technologies do not compete with each other, and each can occupy a separate segment of the large and steadily growing ethylene market. Hopefully they will all replace conventional steam-cracking technology as existing facilities grow old and uneconomical. Perhaps some of the newer technologies can also be “dropped into” existing plants, as Union Carbide did with Unipol at Norchem (Northern Petrochemical Company) to improve the operating economics of a high-pressure PE plant.
The question remains, however, whether all three will make it commercially, since two are being commercialized by start-ups that require alliances with deep-pocketed stakeholders (operating companies and engineering & procurement companies) to obtain required funding. With regard to ExxonMobil’s, announcement, there is no financial issue, and I am pleased to see that their technology is now being used commercially..
Steven Cohen is the managing director of Centennial Associates. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cohen has previously worked as new business director for Union Carbide and Battelle Memorial as v.p. of technology commercialization.
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