🏭 First time making LAOs

Exxon's two new LAO-focused plants mark their entrance into a new market.

Good morning. Thanks for all of the feedback in the last couple of weeks since I announced those changes! Trying something new today—a poll about what today’s edition is about, right after the blurb.

Exxon’s newest olefins plant started up

American petroleum company, ExxonMobil, has announced that its 385,000 ton per year linear alpha olefins (LAO) plant, and its 441,00 ton per year LAO-based copolymer plant just started up in Baytown, Texas.

Some context:
Linear alpha olefins (LAO) are an often-overlooked class of longer olefins made from shorter olefins (by oligomerizing ethylene or 1,3-butadiene). The chain length of the LAO is what determines its end application: shorter ones (less than 8 carbons) are typically used as comonomers in HDPE and LLDPE production, while longer ones (10 to 14 carbons) are polymerized to make PAOs, which are in turn used to make synthetic motor oil. (There are also some niche uses in detergent alcohols and oil field chemicals.)

Why this is interesting:
Despite being the largest of PAO producer in the world, ExxonMobil does not currently produce any of that LAO feedstock, and roughly four other companies make LAOs: Shell, Ineos, CP Chem, and Sasol (there are more than just those 4, but those 4 make up 85% of the market). In short, this new site is Exxon’s grand entrance into a very consolidated market.

One step back:
Exxon's process technology, which has never been commercialized before, is meant to produce LAOs of all chain lengths. That means they’ll be able to copolymerize some of those LAOs with ethylene (sold as Vistamaxx) or propylene (sold as Exact) to make polymer modifiers, and they’ll be able to feed their synthetic motor oil business (Mobil). This is different than how others have gone about it—CP Chem, for example, is just looking to make a single LAO (1-hexene).

Okay, so why is Exxon looking to make the full range of LAOs?

(And not just a single chain length.)

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What else is going on:

  • Origin Materials scored some funding from the US Department of Defense (on the order of single digit millions) for its bio-based and carbon negative carbon black. The other winners include Gingko Bioworks and a probiotics producer, as well as a company looking to bring dandelion-based rubber to the market.

  • Louisville-based Zeon Chemicals is expanding its rubber-based binder production for lithium-ion batteries at its site in Pasadena, Texas. And in classic chemical company fashion, they failed to mention the exact material being produced! But it’s probably some variant of styrene butadiene rubber.

  • Toray and Honda are working together to try to depolymerize vehicle components made from nylon 6 with supercritical water. Nylon has made some headway into the automotive market by replacing parts conventionally made of metal, like the intake manifold.

  • Huntsman revealed a new liquid thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) that they say is far easier to use than the expanded forms of TPUs, which use complex processes like “supercritical foaming and steam chest molding”. Reducing costs for your customers is always a compelling pitch—and it’s a win win if the costs being reduced are your customer’s capital expenses (presumably this TPU is not cheaper than the alternatives).

  • Haldor Topsoe’s process technology was selected for a new renewable fuels plant in Indonesia. It’s going to be a small refinery that produces some 6,000 barrels per day worth of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and renewable diesel.

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