🏭 The Column: Nov 30, 2023

Waste plastic to phenol, concrete admixtures, ferric sulfate, net-zero steam cracking, Röhm and SABIC.

Good morning. You’d think that after 3+ years The Column would have touched on basically every molecule we produce at scale, but today’s edition features a couple of new ones that we haven’t talked in the past: polycarboxylic ethers and ferric sulfate.

Worth Reading:

The Lost Art Of Technology Innovation In The Process Industry

I’ve written about why it’s so hard to start a chemical company in the past, but market effects aside, building giant chemical complexes is just an extremely complicated endeavor. The folks over at Independent Project Analysis (IPA) put together a nice blog post that breaks down why it’s so complicated, and touches on some best practices if you’re in the mood to build a billion-dollar plant. (Disclaimer: this newsletter is not sponsored by IPA) [LINK]

What’s Going On:

Getting benzene rings from waste plastic

We’ve seen an explosion of interest in the pyrolysis of plastic waste over the last few years, but mostly from petrochemical companies who view pyrolysis oil as a naphtha-like substitute for their olefin-making steam crackers. Spain’s CEPSA is more like a semi-integrated-refiner than a petrochemical company: they make phenol and acetone as co-products of the Cumene process, which takes benzene and propylene as inputs. CEPSA is claiming that they made sustainable phenol on a mass balance basis, which sounds like they’re treating pyrolysis oil as a naphtha-like substitute for their benzene-making catalytic reformers. [LINK]

Sika’s concrete-driven polycarboxy expansion

"Cement" and "concrete" are often used interchangeably, so it’s worth clarifying: cement is just one component in concrete; concrete is the combination of cement, SCMs, aggregates (like sand and gravel), admixtures, plus water and air (for curing). Sika is in the admixture business, which can be summed up as “a bunch of different specialty polymers that either a) reduce water requirements, b) alter the curing speed, or c) extend the lifetime of the concrete”. They’re expanding their site in Sealy, Texas to make more polycarboxylic ethers (PCEs), which are specialty polymers of the water-reducing variety. It’s a great time to be selling a concrete component that both saves cost and checkmarks a sustainability box. [LINK]

More ferric sulfate in the UK

One problem we don’t talk about much (but we should talk about more often) is eutrophication: when runoff water contains a high concentration of run off water and leads to algal blooms, which we don’t want. This happens because we use fertilizers that contain a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and not all of that gets absorbed by crops; some of it gets washed away with the water that crops (also) need. The UK is mitigating this effect by increasing water treatment regulation, and ferric sulfate is very effective at removing phosphorus. So Kemira is going to make more ferric sulfate. [LINK]

Dow’s net-zero steam cracker

It’s been a couple of years since it was first announced, but now it’s official: Dow Chemical's board of directors approved plans to build a new steam cracker and polyethylene (PE) plant in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta—but with carbon capture and cracker off-gas to hydrogen units too. Those units should eliminate both Scope 1 (CO2 from buying electricity and heat) and Scope 2 (CO2 from operating) emissions, so in 4-6 years (probably more if we’re being realistic) we’ll have nearly 2 Mtpa of net-zero PE on the market. It will be interesting to see how PE buyers choose between what Dow plans on making (petroleum-based but net-zero) and what Braskem already does (plant-based but not net zero). I bet they’ll choose based on the price. [LINK]

Röhm and SABIC’s mini merger

About a year ago, Reuters reported that Röhm had reached an agreement with SABIC to acquire its polycarbonate sheets business for roughly $300m. Now the plan is to merge SABIC’s sheets business with Röhm’s PMMA and polycarbonate businesses to form Polyvantis. The combined entity now stretches down the value chain, so Polyvantis should be able to capture a larger fraction of the value it creates. And that checks out: after all, Röhm is owned by a private equity firm (known as Advent International), and capturing more value is sort of their mission. So don’t be surprised if you see Polyvantis spun out and sold. [LINK]

Other Things Happen:

BASF is going to make more defoamers at its plant in Turkey. ADM and Marathon started up their soybean processing plant in North Dakota. Vink Chemicals started building their biocide raw material plant. S-Oil is opening a new research center in South Korea. Deepak Fertilizers still hasn’t restarted its isopropyl alcohol plant.

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