🏭 The Column: May 24, 2024

A new PO process, recycling PVC, making CO2 free cement, and converting naphtha into ethane and propane.

Good morning. Last week I mentioned that someone was selling a glycerine plant at SOCMA last year, and I was happy to find out that that person reads The Column, and that the glycerine plant is still up for grabs. If you’re interested in that plant, other used plants, or other used equipment, please let me know and I can put you in touch.

Things Happened:

There’s a new PO process on the block

Propylene oxide (PO) has a special place in my heart because my earliest days were spent with LyondellBasell, who made the molecule two ways: via the PO/SM process, and via the PO/TBA process (both of which produce a co-product, styrene and tert-butyl alcohol, respectively). Those co-products are great when the demand for them is growing at the same rate as PO (or at a rate proportional to the amount of co-product produced per unit of PO), and when the margins for that co-product are equal to or greater than that of PO. But, as you might imagine, that is almost never true, so a PO-only process is generally preferred. The problem: producing PO by itself is hard, and until recently the only way to do it resulted in an obscene quantity of waste water. But times have changed! Both Evonik and Sumitomo have been developing better approaches since the early 2000s, and now Sumitomo is going to start licensing out their process (just as Evonik has for the last decade) by partnering up with KBR. I think Sumitomo’s process will take the cake, mostly because Evonik’s process consumes the chemical they use to do the epoxidation (hydrogen peroxide), and Sumitomo recycles the chemical they use (cumene hydroperoxide). [LINK]

Ineos wants to recycle PVC

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling plastic waste, but it’s not hard to conceive a series of processes that could get the job done. And I think we can all agree that a brute force thermal approach (aka pyrolysis) should occur at the very end of that series, after all of the other goodies have been removed. Unless, of course, it’s more cost effective to remove the goodies post-pyrolysis; for example, if your mixed plastic waste contains PVC, you’re going to need to remove that chlorine before you toss that pyrolysis oil back in a steam cracker. But if you have a vested interest in recycling PVC, because you’re already a PVC producer, then you’d probably rather remove the PVC before you do the pyrolysis. That’s what Ineos wants to do, and they are going about it via dissolution, which is also (in my view) the most sensible way of removing polystyrene from mixed plastic waste. [LINK]

Making CO2 free cement

About 7% of the world’s CO2 emissions are a product of cement production because of three compounding reasons: 1) we make about 4 billion tons of cement per year (that’s 16x global ethylene production), 2) we make cement by firing a kiln with hydrocarbon fuel, and 3) CO2 is a by-product of the reaction that produces the cement precursor (calcium oxide). There are companies who are developing more innovative cement production methods, and there are companies who are developing more innovating CO2 capture methods. This case is an example of the latter: Air Liquide is going to strap a new CO2 capture technology (they're basically cooling down flue gas and turning CO2 into dry ice because solids are easy to separate from gases) onto Holcim’s new cement plant. [LINK]

Converting naphtha to ethane and propane

Most of the world’s chemicals are derived from two platform molecules: ethylene and propylene. For the larger part of history we’ve made ethylene and propylene by steam cracking the naphtha produced by refineries, but over the last two decades we’ve increasingly done this by steam cracking ethane and propane—that’s mostly because of the fracking boom, but it’s also because you get more ethylene and propylene per ton of input when your input is ethane and propane, not naphtha. Honeywell is leaning into this second point: they’ve developed a new process that converts naphtha into ethane and propane, which means that refineries who are interested in producing more chemicals can do so without producing the long tail of naphtha-fed steam cracker by-products. (This undoubtedly translates to higher margins, and apparently produces less CO2.) [LINK]

Other Things Happened:

Dow Chemical started up a new propylene glycol plant in Thailand. Ube is going to expand its production of lithium-ion battery separators. A couple of companies are looking at refining lithium in Europe. PPG is building a new paints and coatings plant outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Dow Chemical and SCGC want to team up on plastic recycling. Worley is going to design Chevron, Talos, and Equinor’s joint CCUS project along the US Gulf Coast. H.B. Fuller decided to acquire another adhesives producer. 3M expanded its site in Nebraska. Cemvita now says that it can make sustainable aviation fuel with its microbes. Hungary’s MOL Group completed construction of its new $1.4bn polyol complex. Shin-Etsu is building a new silicones plant.


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