- The Column
- 🏭 February 2023: Round-Up
🏭 February 2023: Round-Up
Everything that happened in February 2023, plus some discussion.
Good morning. Welcome to the February 2023 Round-Up! The goal here is to give you a chance to look back at what we talked about and to lean into a couple of topics that are worth some extra discussion.
But before we get into it, a quick update: The Column spun out a new newsletter, called Feedstockland, that will occasionally send out deep dives. The second edition, which will be sent later this week, is about casinos, chemicals, and kinetics. Subscribe here so you don't miss it!
Okay—here's what we talked about in February:
Feb 1st ($): Exxon's blue H2 plans and Eneos' electrochemical MCH
Feb 3rd ($): Orbia's lithium salt plans and upcycling plastic waste to solvents
Feb 8th ($): Rohm's PMMA might be CO2-free and Covestro started up a new chlor-alkali plant
Feb 10th ($): LyondellBasell's solvent-based recycling acquisition and Kuraray's new specialty polymer plant
Feb 13th: Braskem and Coolbrook's electric cracker and UPM's bio-based MEG for coolants
Feb 15th ($): The chemical release in Ohio and Toyo Ink's nanotubes for batteries
Feb 17th ($): Arlanxeo's new PBR plant and Evonik's spider silk agreement
Feb 22nd: Using sustainable DME instead of LPG and Alterra's pyrolysis tech deal
Feb 24th ($): Ineos' oil and gas investment and BASF's battery recycling partnership
Feb 27th: Origin Materials and Avantium team up and Celanese and a couple of JVs
Need to hire a ChemE or looking for a ChemE job?
There’s no shortage of recruiting firms out there, but very few exclusively serve the chemical processing industry—Sun Recruiting is one of the few. Over the last decade, 20 of their clients have relied on them to fill 5 or more of their open positions. And if you’re a chemical engineer looking for a role, they can help too.
Not looking right now? It’s still worth checking out their website. They have several resources for ChemEs, including the 2023 US ChemE Salary Report (yours free with contribution of your data to the project!).
What to remember:
Liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHCs) demonstrate solar and water costs.
Electrifying crackers doesn't always mean resistive heaters.
Dimethyl ether is a lot like propane.
Let's talk about LOHCs first: the issue is really just that gases are notably less dense than liquids and solids, so we condense gases before we ship them overseas. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the prototypical example here, but it's not the only one (remember Very Large Ethane Carriers?).
In any case, liquefying hydrogen for transport is hotly debated. The crux of the issue is two-fold: liquefying hydrogen is ~33% more energy-intensive than LNG, and the energy density of that condensed hydrogen is just 38% of LNG's energy density. This effectively means that transporting hydrogen for fuel applications is inefficient, so hydrogen-lovers have been looking for alternative shipping methods.
And that's where LOHCs come in—instead of trying to liquefy that hydrogen prior to transport, the idea is that you just hydrogenate some other liquid organic compound in one spot, ship what is now the LOHC, and then dehydrogenate the LOHC when it arrives. Instead of your losses coming from energy uses for liquefaction, your losses come from the hydrogenation and dehydrogenation operations.
Early last month we saw Eneos (not to be confused with Ineos) start up a demonstration-scale unit that makes methylcyclohexane (MCH), an LOHC, electrochemically. The real innovation here is that instead of making green hydrogen to hydrogenate some organic compound in two units, Eneos is doing it in one by adding toluene to the cathode side of a water electrolyzer (one unit instead of two reduces capital costs).
Whether or not that makes economic sense is out of the scope of this summary. The key thing to note here is just that Eneos, a Japanese company, thinks that it will be cheaper to use Australian solar and wind plus the operational and transport costs than to use local Japanese solar and wind to make green hydrogen in Japan.
Now taking a look at electric cracking: remember, the whole point of that hydrogen thing above was to eventually use the hydrogen as a non-CO2-emitting fuel. This is just one of 5 ways we can deal with the energy-intensive situation the chemical industry finds itself in—alternatively you could produce heat with renewable electricity directly, and skip the "convert to hydrogen, then convert to LOHC, convert back to hydrogen, and then burn it" part.
That's what electric crackers are shooting for. We've mentioned a couple of ways that can do this in the past, but the most common one we see is some form of resistive heating (like the element on your stove or in your oven).
Apparently those heaters struggle to operate at temperatures that exceed 500°C, and since steam crackers typically operate between 700-900°C, Coolbrook is offering an alternative: an electrically-driven turbine that repeatedly accelerates gas molecules to supersonic velocities and then decelerates them to subsonic velocities—which reportedly imparts enough kinetic energy to heat some gases up to 1700°C.
Whether or not Coolbrook's tech would work at scale isn't the point here. The point is that at least someone is addressing the issues that plague resistive heating, and are coming at it from a profitability angle: Coolbrook argues that it's electrically-driven heater can achieve higher temperatures than today's steam crackers, and that means even better cracker conversion (aka more money!).
Shifting gears to an odd ball: in December's round up, we talked about Fulcrum's recycling plant, which addresses the long tail of waste that is uniquely difficult to recycle (like used diapers). Fulcrum is gasifying that waste to make syngas, and then assembling those syngas components into hydrocarbons via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis.
Maire Technimont's subsidiary, NextChem, and Netherlands-based Dimeta are looking to do something really similar, but instead of making a distribution of various hydrocarbons, they want to make just one: dimethyl ether (DME).
DME has a really interesting recent history. China's coal to chemicals industry made methanol super cheap, and then high demand for heating fuel made DME an attractive liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) blendstock (because DME is molecularly very similar to propane, which makes up a large fraction of LPG).
Anyways, if the end product is going to be used for fuel applications, then being able to make a single chemical with a single application may be more profitable. At the very least it's more efficient because those synthetic fuels from Fischer-Tropsch synthesis still need to be refined, while DME would just need to be blended with LPG.
Would you have preferred a normal update today?
Considering changing things up...