🏭 The Column: Nov 8, 2023

Dow and Evonik, Solvay and Orbia, battery separators, a plant closure, PDH, and plastic sorting.

Good morning. I was pleasantly surprised to see that over 80% of you prefer this new version of The Column. So we’ll build from here—you can expect consistency again!

Worth Reading:

Hubba Hubba

We’ve talked about the hydrogen rainbow (grey, blue, turquoise, and green—all hydrogen, all made differently) quite a few times over the years. The short version goes like this: some people think we should use greener hydrogen as a fuel for transport and industrial heating, and some think it should be reserved for material applications, like fertilizer production. It’s safe to take the latter stance because there’s no debate; the feedstocks for ammonia (i.e. the platform chemical for nitrogen-based fertilizers) are nitrogen and hydrogen, and no amount of electrification can replace the material input of hydrogen. Anyways—the US’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations announced that $7bn is being allocated to funding “hydrogen hubs”. Nick Van Osdol did a great job breaking it down (and yes, the article is titled “Hubba Hubba”). [LINK]

What’s Going On:

Dow and Evonik’s new pilot plant

While most of the world’s propylene (some 110 Mtpa) is used to make polypropylene, roughly 7% (that’s 7.7 Mtpa) of it is oxidized to make propylene oxide (PO), of which 20% (that’s 1.5 Mtpa) is hydrolyzed to make propylene glycols (mostly MPG). Evonik and Thyssenkrupp recently commercialized a new co-product free way of making that PO via hydrogen peroxide, and now Evonik is working with Dow to commercialize a co-product free way of making MPG—also via hydrogen peroxide, but with a new catalyst that eliminates the need to make PO first. This is a big deal: there are very few ways to innovate in this industry, but shortening the value chain (i.e. reducing intermediate steps) is arguably the most compelling. Less equipment to buy, less equipment to operate, and lower conversion losses. Their pilot plant, located in Germany, just started up. [LINK]

Solvay and Orbia finalized their JV

In case you haven’t noticed, the CHIPS Act and the IRA have the DOE throwing a lot of cash at semiconductors, batteries, carbon capture & storage, hydrogen, and biofuels. This has been true (to a certain extent) for a couple of years now—the DOE granted these two $178m for the JV about a year ago. Now the JV agreement has officially been signed, and the two companies will work together to produce polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) for use as an electrode binder or separator coating in lithium-ion batteries. (PVDF is a fluoropolymer traditionally produced by polymerizing vinylidene fluoride—an HFO that can trace its roots to the combination of petroleum-based hydrocarbons and halogen gases.) [LINK]

Coating more battery separators

In other battery-related news, Japan’s Asahi Kasei announced plans to expand its production of coated separators. The separator, which is typically a permeable membrane soaked with liquid electrolyte, prevents contact between the cathode and anode while allowing for the transport of lithium-ions across the cell. That membrane is usually microporous polyethylene (PE), but is often a PE sandwich made with polypropylene bread (PP/PE/PP), and is sometimes coated with—wait for it—PVDF. [LINK]

Ingevity is closing a plant

This site in DeRidder, Louisiana has been around since 1977, but it has primarily functioned as a storage terminal and tree oil processor. Ingevity bought the site in 2016, bought Perstorp's caprolactone and caprolactone polyol business in 2019, and then decided to upgrade this site by increasing its caprolactone storage capacity and building a new caprolactone polyol plant. That new plant started up just one year ago, so its shutdown is a little surprising—but apparently prices for their feedstock (crude tall oil) are high, and demand from rosin-based end markets is on a downcycle. [LINK]

An LNG company getting into PDH

Natural gas liquefaction and regasification plants are springing up left and right across the globe, so seeing one of those announcements mostly looks like noise. But for some reason India’s Petronet LNG has decided to diversify its LNG regasification business by importing propane, dehydrogenating it to make propylene (that’s PDH), and then polymerizing it to make PP. These businesses aren’t mass integrated (as in, the propane probably isn’t coming from the LNG), so it seems like this is a response to market demand for PP downstream, not a super-interesting-strategic move. [LINK]

Refiner and plastic waste recycler

As chemical engineers talking about plastic waste, we tend to focus on the prospect of chemical recycling, and to overlook the problem upstream (collection, sorting) or the alternatives (mechanical recycling). This is not lost on OMV—the company just announced plans to build a 260 Ktpa sorting site in Germany (by 2026), and plans on building a 200 Ktpa pyrolysis site downstream (eventually). In the US this is most comparable to what Cyclyx is looking to do, which we talked about last week. [LINK]

Other Things Happen:

SK Geocentric and Plastic Energy are going to build a pyrolysis plant in South Korea. Fluor was contracted to design the world’s first full-scale sodium-ion battery production site. A new polypropylene plant in China that used W.R. Grace’s process just started up. Novonix just secured a $100m grant from the US DOE for a new synthetic graphite plant. PureCycle shipped its first product to a distributor. Axens and ZJPE formed a joint venture to market ZJPE’s spiral tube heat exchangers.

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