🏭 The Column: Nov 1, 2023
LyondellBasell and Cyclyx, Solugen and ADM, Mura, CPVC, ethanol-to-propylene, and phosphorus.
Good morning! Welcome to the 540th edition of The Column. Some updates:
I underestimated how many of you like The Column’s name.
I also underestimated how many of you enjoy the memes.
Covering one story per week with more depth hasn’t been as fruitful as I hoped it would be.
So I’m leaving the name and memes, and I’m testing out a new structure that I have a good feeling about. Let me know what you think in the poll at the bottom!
Say Goodbye to “Forever Chemicals”
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) molecules are problematic because a) they are known carcinogens, and b) they are extremely stable molecules. That stability, or, more specifically, the stability of the carbon-fluorine (C-F) bond, is partly why PFAS has become so prolific—not only do PFAS have a C-F bond that makes the molecule super hydrophobic (water resistant) and lipophobic (oil resistant), that bond doesn’t like to break. These chemical realities are responsible for the waterproof functionality of Patagonia’s apparel. But, because of the whole carcinogen thing, consumer-facing brands like Patagonia have been looking for PFAS alternatives that deliver the same performance their customers have become accustomed to. If you read the blog post you’ll find that Patagonia can’t deliver a perfect PFAS substitute, and they are asking for consumers to change their behavior (be okay with oil stains, wash and dry your waterproof jackets carefully). I think this is commendable admission: you can’t have the PFAS pros without the PFAS cons. [LINK]
What’s Going On:
LyondellBasell bought into Cyclyx
A couple of years ago Agylix (a startup attempting to commercialize a polystyrene depolymerization process) formed Cyclyx to separate those PS depolymerization efforts from their infrastructure efforts (things like collecting and sorting plastic waste). Exxon acquired 10% of Cyclyx shortly after, and now LyondellBasell is acquiring 25%. It’s pretty clear to me that Lyondell sees a future in the business of recycling plastic waste. They’ve developed a proprietary catalyst for pyrolysis, they keep hinting at a retrofit for their Houston refinery, and now, this. [LINK]
Solugen’s new plant
ADM already converts corn (starch) to dextrose (that’s the D isomer of glucose) via enzymatic hydrolysis in Minnesota, but largely for the ethanol market downstream (aka a fuel we blend into gasoline). But after Solugen sets up shop next door, some of that dextrose will be converted into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide for water treatment markets. This is a natural next step for Solugen—and it’s not the only partnership with a big guy that we’ve seen lately (they also signed a deal with Sasol not too long ago). I’m interested to see what chemicals and markets Solugen looks into after the get their feet under them. It’s hard to jump right into the bigger carbon problems (i.e. commodity chemicals) when the scale you need is an order of magnitude larger than the scale of this site. (To be clear, that’s not a knock on Solugen—a 50-100 KTPA site is large—it’s just specialty chemicals, so we’re not talking about millions of tons per year.) [LINK]
Mura is starting up soon
When it comes to the molecular recycling of plastic waste, we mostly talk about polymer-generic pyrolysis or some polymer-specific depolymerization (like methanolysis for PET). Mura’s process sits closer to polymer-generic pyrolysis, but it has a twist: instead of applying heat externally to a reactor filled with plastic (via steam jackets), they plan to apply that heat internally (via supercritical steam). Rumor has it that internal heat scales well (hello giant steam cracker complexes), but they’ll face the same constraint that all sustainable alternatives will face. In any case, it looks like their first plant in the UK is set to begin commissioning any day now. [LINK]
Making CPVC in India
CPVC is PVC’s extra-chlorinated cousin, which we make by—you guessed it—continuing to chlorinate PVC. That extra chlorine makes PVC more heat resistant, which is important if you want to transport hot water. As India’s population grows and its cities sprawl, the demand for CPVC piping should rise, so long as it’s cheaper than its main competitor: PEX. [LINK]
Phenol and acetone issues
Most of the world’s phenol and acetone are made via the cumene process, which takes benzene and propylene as inputs. Apparently Shell had to declare a force majeure on the phenol and acetone they make in Deer Park, Texas because of “unforeseen and unplanned outages with multiple units upstream.” Force majeures happen all the time, but they are especially interesting for processes with co-products: acetone and phenol are produced by the same reaction, but these co-products have very different supply and demand dynamics. Phenol supply could be long, and acetone supply could be short. [LINK]
Making ethylene via ethanol is fairly straightforward, but making propylene via ethanol is not. The most promising option we’ve seen so far combines dehydration, dimerization, and metathesis, and still shows poor yields (2 to 30%). Apparently Sumitomo has a new process that can do it without those intermediates, and they plan on piloting that process in Chiba, Japan in 2025. [LINK]
A little phosphorous problem
Usually when we talk about fertilizers we’re talking about nitrogen-based fertilizers, but potassium and phosphorus are also important. Nitrogen just gets the attention because we can find potassium and phosphorus by mining, but you can’t find nitrogen by mining. Maybe we’ll start to see phosphorus get more attention as we approach peak phosphorus, or maybe we’ll find more of it like we found oil. But that’s a later problem—Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers is dealing with a now problem: they can’t seem to get their hands on any phosphoric acid, so they had to idle their plant. [LINK]
What do you think of this structure?