Worldwide demand for industrial catalysts is worth $29.5 billion, with robust growth expected into the future, according to "Global Catalyst Market," a June 2011 report from Acmite Market Intelligence, Ratingen, Germany. The company points out that manufacturers rely on catalysis to produce 80% of the most industrially important chemicals, ones involved in $10-trillion worth of goods and services globally every year. The size of the market certainly provides ample incentives for ongoing developments in catalyst technology.
For example, in early September, Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP, a Honeywell company, announced it will supply C3 Oleflex technology to Fujian Meide Petrochemical Company, Fujian City, China. The 660,000-metric-ton/yr propane dehydrogenation unit will be the largest in the world when it comes onstream in 2014. It was UOP's third major Oleflex announcement in 2011: another is expected before the end of the year.
Oleflex (Figure 1) allows the catalytic dehydrogenation of propane — and entry into the rapidly growing propylene market — independent of a steam cracker or fluid catalytic cracking unit.
"When we are developing catalysts, there are both technical and business milestones to be met," says Mike Cleveland, UOP business director for petrochemical process technology and equipment. "Oleflex has been like this and we are now on the third generation of the catalyst, with the fourth in development. This version has formulation changes to reduce coke formation and increase yield."
For UOP, one of the main challenges is predicting what processes chemical and petrochemical makers will need in the medium and long term. This heavily depends on feedstock supply and location.
"We are always looking at marketing data and laying out plans. It can take 3–5 years to get a technology into practice and you need to be first to the market in our business. Oleflex is interesting because we had no enquiries for many years and suddenly propane dehydrogenation became really important. That's down to the price and availability of natural gas: if you told people five years ago what the difference between the price of crude oil and natural gas would be today, they'd think you were crazy," he adds.
In other markets, such as detergents, the company focuses primarily on improvements in efficiency rather than potential changes in feedstocks.
UOP has launched its fourth-generation Pacol catalyst, which converts C12–C16 normal paraffins into the corresponding mono-olefins used in today's detergents. Coupled with this is the new UOP/CEPSA Detal-Plus process to make linear alkylbenzene (LAB), the precursor to linear alkylbenzene sulfonate, now the most widely used surfactant in biodegradable household detergents. Detal-Plus uses transalkylation of heavy alkylbenzene byproduct to produce up to 5% more LAB, while reducing capital investment and operating costs.
"One of the technical challenges for detergent manufacturers is the need to use hydrogen fluoride (HF), which is heavily regulated. However, Detal-Plus requires less energy because it operates at lower olefin-to-benzene ratios, so we might be able to help manufacturers remove some HF units altogether," notes Cleveland.