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Solvay's cleaner soda ash and importing green ammonia into the EU
Good morning. Today’s edition goes out to everyone, and it features a nice refresher on the state of soda ash and why importing green ammonia is problematic.
From the condenser:
· Solvay's cleaner soda ash
· Importing green ammonia into the EU
· MOTD: polypropylene
Making soda ash a little cleaner
Belgian chemical company, Solvay, announced plans to build a pilot plant at its site in northeast France to validate a new soda ash production process.
The background you need:
Back in the early 1860s, two brothers, Ernest and Alfred Solvay, developed a new means to produce sodium carbonate (aka soda ash). Their method, which consumes sodium chloride (in the form of brine) and calcium carbonate (from limestone), proved to be far superior to the incumbent Leblanc process. So, by the late 1920s, all of the old Leblanc plants had been shut down and replaced by Solvay plants.
Catching you up:
While the Solvay process has certainly become more efficient over the last century and a half, it hasn't changed at a fundamental level. That means that it's still burdened by its energy requirements (which is why Solvay wants to split in half) and it still discharges some unused limestone powder into the environment (which is how Solvay made this beach white).
We’re still missing a lot of details here, but it sounds like Solvay wants to electrify part of its age-old process (reducing CO2 emissions) and eliminate the discharge of that unused limestone powder. Doing so would appease Bluebell Capital Partners (the activist investors that won't leave Solvay alone) and help Solvay meet its 2050 sustainability goals. We'll have to wait and see—and we may be waiting for a while—Solvay didn't provide any timelines for the construction of the pilot plant.
Importing green ammonia into Europe
Belgian pipeline operator, Fluxys, and Netherlands-based storage company, Advario, might build a green ammonia import terminal at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges.
Why you should care:
Let's get one thing clear first—these companies don't care what the green ammonia is used for, they are just trying to service the anticipated demand. But we should still be asking a couple of questions: (1) what demand are they anticipating, and (2) why do they think importing is needed to satisfy that demand?
First, some context:
We make ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process, which combines nitrogen (from the air) with hydrogen (mostly from the steam reforming of methane). When companies say green ammonia, they are referring to ammonia made with green hydrogen, which is made via the electrolysis of water. Everyone likes to ignore the fact that nitrogen comes from the energy-intensive cryogenic distillation of air—either because they are blind to it, or because we don't have a viable alternative.
So, what's the deal here:
These companies are taking guidance from the European Commission's REPowerEU plan. The plan calls for the annual consumption of 22 million tons of green hydrogen by 2030, a fifth of which should be imported. Since hydrogen is a pain to transport (unless you use a pipeline), ammonia would just function as an energy-carrier (assuming you use convert that ammonia back into hydrogen).
Why that is weird:
Let's use an extreme example: instead of shipping ethylene, let's polymerize it, ship it, depolymerize it when it gets there, and then let's burn it! Going from hydrogen to ammonia to hydrogen only makes sense if the local fuel value of hydrogen is greater than the local material value of ammonia. Weird arbitrage situations like this can exist when certain regions don't have access to certain raw materials, but green hydrogen can be made anywhere (since water is everywhere), so importing green ammonia (for this use case) will only make sense if the government eats the lost value (with subsidies).
Some more headlines:
- Lummus' air preheater technology for steam crackers is now more efficient
- Sanyo Chemical developed a biodegradable laundry detergent base
- Nippon Paper and Mitsui Chemicals are working on a new biocomposite
- Asia is going to lead global propylene capacity additions by 2026
- Wacker might spend $200M on a US HCR capacity expansion
Molecule of The Day:
Today's MOTD is worth telling your friends about, it's polypropylene.
While it's true that two chemists at Phillps Petroleum discovered polypropylene (PP), it wasn't until Ziegler and Natta developed a fancy catalyst that the world started making massive amounts of PP.
Today, over 97% of the roughly 80 million tons produced each year are made by polymerizing propylene with Ziegler-Natta catalysts. It's worth noting that only about 60% of that PP are homopolymers—the rest are these copolymers that introduce ethylene and rubber.
If you know what you're looking for, you'll find PP everywhere you look. Here is a handy pie chart if you want some examples.There are plenty of PP producers around the world, but LyondellBasell and Sinopec are the most notable of the main players.
In case you're interested:
- Podcast: Check out this episode featuring a metallurgy and process development expert.
- Product: Does measuring the pH of random liquids sound fun to you? If so, then try out this pH meter.*
- Article: Oleochemicals are making a comeback because of the sustainability push. Give this a read if you want some context.
- Tip: Trying to understand the stock market? The Average Joe boils it down so the everyday investor can keep up.*
All views represent those of the author not their employer.