🏭 Flare gas to methanol
M2X's flare gas to methanol plans and Borealis' molecular recycling acquisition
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From the condenser:
· M2X and flare gas to methanol
· Borealis' molecular recycling acquisition
· MOTD: lactic acid
oil derrick in the desert with cactus
M2X Energy's first field test is coming up
Setting the scene:
When you drill for oil and gas, you're either drilling mostly for oil (with an oil well) or mostly for gas (with a gas well), but in most cases you end up with a bit of both. And since oil is a lot easier to store than gas, if the site doesn't have the equipment to process it, and it's not hooked up to a pipeline, any gas produced while drilling for oil will be vented to the atmosphere or burned on-site at the flare. This, in principle, is wasteful, but since it's infeasible to connect a pipe to every well, you really only have two options: (1) use the gas to produce electricity, or (2) convert the gas into chemicals.
Okay, so what's the deal here?
M2X is looking to prevent venting or flaring by converting that natural gas into methanol at the well. If you're familiar with methanol production, converting natural gas to methanol probably doesn't sound challenging (we already do this via syngas at large scale facilities)—but it is challenging: M2X needs to (1) handle variable gas flow rates, (2) handle non-methane alkanes (NGLs), and (3) do it in a compact way so that it can fit on a trailer.
Connecting the dots:
It seems like M2X's key innovation is its engine reformer, which is functionally the same thing as a steam reformer, except it's smaller, more responsive to flow rate variation, mildly exothermic, and capable of providing electrical power to other units downstream. Aside from that, the rest of the process probably works the same as the industrial route, just at a smaller scale.
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pile of clear plastic bottles
Borealis bought a molecular recycler
The background you need:
Borealis operates two steam crackers in Europe: one in Porvoo, Finland, and one in Stenungsund, Sweden. Those steam crackers convert feedstocks like naphtha and ethane into olefins like ethylene and propylene, which are later polymerized into some well-known polyolefins (HDPE, LDPE, PP, etc.). Borealis wants to do the same thing, but using a different feedstock—instead of cracking more naphtha and ethane, they want to crack more depolymerized plastic waste.
Okay, so why the acquisition?
From the perspective of a chemical company with steam crackers, offering customers a sustainable line of polymers looks like this: (1) sourcing depolymerized plastic waste feedstock, (2) confirming that your steam cracker can tolerate it, and (3) marketing a subset of existing polymers, but with a sustainable tagline. So, as you might imagine, sourcing depolymerized plastic waste is the bottleneck here, and one way to ensure that supply is to acquire your supplier.
We've seen this strategy before—it's the same reason why Neste owns a piece of Alterra, and why Exxon owns a piece of Cyclyx. We'll have to wait and see how far it gets them. At some point the molecular recycling problem becomes an infrastructure problem, where the bottleneck isn't our ability to process plastic waste, but our ability to reliably, collect, sort, and transport that waste.
Some more headlines
ConocoPhillips donated $1.2 million to Prairie View A&M University
TotalEnergies started up France's largest anaerobic digestion unit
Resonac (previously named Showa Denko) is supplying Infineon with silicon carbide
Maersk Growth invested in a company doing CO2 hydrogenation
BASF broke ground on its MDI capacity expansion
Molecule of The Day
Today's MOTD is the most interesting one of all: lactic acid.
While you produce lactic acid each time you hit the gym, we leave it to companies like Corbion, Cargill, Henan Jindan, and DuPont to do the real mass production.First isolated from sour milk in 1780 by a Swedish man, the world now produces nearly 300,000 tons of lactic acid each year. About 90% of it is made by the fermentation of plant sugars (shoutout to corn), but the molecule can also been produced chemically from acetaldehyde (here's a helpful flowchart).
Lactic acid has historically been used in the food industry for preservation by acidulation, but global production has recently ramped up for the production of ethyl lactate(a biobased solvent) and polylactic acid (a biobased plastic).
Podcast: Check out this episode featuring a former Global R&D Director at Dow Chemical about sustainability and circular economy.
Video: Are you still a student? Give Shawn Esquivel's video on the most important skills to learn a watch.
Previous Edition: Did you miss The Column's December round up? Give it a read over here.
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