A Greener New Normal for Petrochemical Processes?

July 9, 2024
Electrically heated steam crackers, pyrolysis and biomass refineries are emerging as the innovative, sustainable processes poised to transform chemical process operations.

The project now moves into its next phase, which will involve gathering data and experience about material behavior and processes under commercial operating conditions.

Two separate demonstration furnaces are planned to test two different heating concepts.

In one, an electric current is applied directly to the cracking coils. The second will use indirect heating elements placed around the coils.

Together, the two electrically heated furnaces will process around 4 t/hr of hydrocarbon feedstock and consume 6 MW of renewable energy.

A joint statement to Chemical Processing from the three partners said the testing/demonstration phase of the eFurnace will run until end of 2026: “In the development process we touch new ground. We have not only developed the world’s first electrical heating concepts for steam cracking furnaces but also want to demonstrate the reliability of key components, like materials of construction and custom-made components for use in this type of high-temperature reactors.”

The statement added that the partners will use commercially available coil materials for indirect heating. For direct heating, the partners have developed a proprietary coil design.

The demonstration plant is an important step for testing and further developing the new technologies under real production conditions, the companies say, adding that they expect a gradual adoption of electrified cracking technology by the petrochemical industry. The transition will likely begin with add-on furnaces followed by a stepwise replacement of conventional cracking furnaces.

“This will allow progressive improvement of the carbon dioxide footprint and energy efficiency of existing plants,” the statement read. “Installation of an electrified furnace will likely be combined with (partial) electrification of main compressor drives all targeting to reduce the carbon dioxide footprint of the steam cracker. This can also lead to hybrid scenarios with blue hydrogen firing or flue gas carbon dioxide capture for the remaining conventional furnaces.”

Linde is responsible for future commercialization of the newly developed technologies under the Starbridge trademark, enabling the petrochemical industry to decarbonize by replacing conventional fired technologies. The companies would not comment on any contractual details concerning Starbridge.

"We have not only developed the world’s first electrical heating concepts for steam cracking furnaces but also want to demonstrate the reliability of key components, like materials of construction and custom-made components for use in this type of high-temperature reactors." -- Joint statement from Linde, BASF and SABIC on the eFurnace project

To support the ongoing development of the novel furnace technology, the partners have received a €14.8 million ($16 million) grant from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action under its Decarbonization in Industry funding program. This supports energy-intensive industries in Germany in their efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.

Electrically Powered Reformation

Meanwhile, in March, BASF’s efforts to develop electrically powered reformers received a boost when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected it as one of seven chemical companies to begin award negotiations for DOE Green Project funds released under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

BASF’s project to produce syngas from recycled chemical byproduct streams aims to recycle liquid byproducts from existing production processes into low-carbon syngas through electrically powered reformation at its Freeport, Texas, site. The award is worth up $75 million.

By employing energy from renewable resources, BASF says this technology could decrease carbon emissions by up to 90% and support circular value creation at the Freeport site while producing low-carbon syngas for use as feedstock in downstream production.

According to the DOE, by demonstrating plasma gasification, BASF would enable uptake for a technology that is widely able to recycle liquid byproducts into additional production feedstock like syngas or hydrogen, supporting the transition toward a low-carbon and more circular chemical production.

As part of the award brief, the project also aims to improve local air quality and create additional permanent jobs at the Freeport manufacturing site, which already supports 1,600 employees and contractors.

BASF is leading the project that received part of the $75 million award from the DOE for green projects. However, when asked about specifics such as BASF's portion of the $75 million, the project duration, and details on using low-carbon syngas and its process implications, the company stated that it is currently in negotiations with the DOE and had no further comment at this time.

Putting Pyrolysis in Play

In May, Dow and commodities merchant Freepoint Eco-Systems announced plans to build a recycling system to convert pyrolysis oil from plastic waste into valuable materials.

At the heart of the plan is a 180,000 t/yr, Arizona-based facility that will divert end-of-life plastic in the region from a landfill or incineration into recycled pyrolysis oil (Figure 2).

Phase one, expected to start in early 2026, initially will process 90,000 t/yr of waste and yield 65,000 t/yr of pyrolysis oil.

This, in turn, will be sold exclusively to Dow, which will use it to manufacture virgin-grade equivalent plastics at its U.S. Gulf Coast facility, thereby reducing reliance on fossil feedstocks.

The resulting circular products, which will be ISCC Plus certified, will be suitable for use in various applications including food-grade packaging, such as pet food, confectionery and medical and pharmaceutical packaging.

ISCC Plus is a voluntary certification scheme based in Germany and applies to the bioeconomy and circular economy for food, feed, chemicals, plastics, packaging, textiles and renewable feedstock derived from a process using renewable energy sources. BP, Evonik, Shell, Ineos, Chevron, Air Products and many other operating companies are signed up to the initiative.

One of the challenges of pyrolysis oil is that slight variations in its composition can have serious effects on downstream processing.

“The composition of the pyrolysis oil will vary slightly depending on the feedstock composition. However, the finished pyrolysis oil will be compliant with the product specifications set forth by Dow,” noted a company spokeswoman.

She added that the company has spent significant time and technical resources analyzing Freepoint’s pyrolysis oil qualities. “We believe the pyrolysis oil processing systems should be able to handle this composition,” she said.

The same analysis regime has left Dow confident that the process should be sufficient to maintain an appropriate maintenance program, too.

Freepoint Eco-Systems plans to use the same advanced recycling technology in Arizona that it already uses at its 90,000 t/yr Hebron, Ohio, facility, which is under license from a European supplier.

According to a Freepoint spokesperson, a separate pyrolysis project on the Gulf Coast with Shell is currently paused.

The plan, announced in February 2023, was to license thermochemical liquefaction process technology provided by Alterra for a proposed 192,000 t/yr project, which would have the potential to increase to 288,000 tonnes per annum.

Alterra operates a fully continuous 20,000 tonnes per annum recycling facility in Akron, Ohio, and licences its technology worldwide. The Freepoint project was to have been Alterra's first in North America.

Meanwhile Dow also announced in May a partnership with SGG Chemicals to transform 200,000 t/yr of plastic waste into circular products.

The two companies plan to use both advanced and mechanical recycling technologies to meet this target by 2030 to eventually convert a broad range of plastic waste into high-value applications.

Also in May, Netherlands-based BlueAlp announced plans to partner with Italian waste-management specialist Recupero Etico Sostenible to build what they describe as the first industrial scale advanced recycling plant in Italy.

The Dutch company has developed a patented pyrolysis process, which can handle any plastic waste and has a high tolerance for low-quality end-of-life plastics, much of which currently end up in landfills or incinerators.

The plastic feedstock is heated and cracked in an oxygen-free process, which the company says is safe, continuous and capable of remote operation.

The slow-cracking/gradual-heating process supports optimal cracking at precisely the correct temperatures and, says BlueAlp, is easily scalable. Capacity can increase from 24,500-70,000 t/yr without the need to invest in a new cracker. The company maintains that its process requires significantly less energy than traditional pyrolysis-based cracking.

BlueAlp will procure and fabricate the unit in its workshop in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, while RES will own and operate the plant to process and convert 20,000 t/yr of mixed plastic waste.

The new plant will be located in Pettoranello del Molise, Italy, next to RES’ existing mechanical recycling facilities and should be operational by mid-2026.

Biobased Ethylene and SAF Plan

In March, Boston-based New Energy Blue launched its biochemical subsidiary New Energy Chemicals.

Phase one of the subsidiary’s work will involve producing bio-based ethylene for Dow, said New Energy Blue, which develops, owns and operates biomass refineries producing low-carbon transportation fuels. In phase two, it will expand operations at its Port Lavaca, Texas, facility to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

In late 2025, the New Energy Freedom biomass refinery in Mason City, Iowa, will begin converting local corn stalks into 16-20 million gallons/yr of highly decarbonized (HD) cellulosic ethanol and 120,000 t/yr of clean HD lignin. The company says that lignin has high value as a fossil substitute in markets, such as paving roads and decarbonizing steel production.

Some of New Energy Freedom’s ethanol is destined for California and Oregon auto fuel markets. By meeting their strict low-carbon standards, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 100% per gallon of gasoline displaced. Millions of HD gallons will also head to Texas, where New Energy Chemicals will convert it into biobased ethylene, transported via pipeline to Dow’s U.S. Gulf Coast operations, for production of renewable plastics across fast-growing end markets.

Dow’s use of biobased feedstocks from New Energy Blue is expected to be certified by ISCC Plus, here with the focus on traceability of raw materials within the supply chain.

Dow intends to mix agriculture-based ethylene into its existing manufacturing process, so ISCC Plus’s chain of custody certification would allow its customers to account for biobased materials in their supply chains.

Meanwhile, New Energy Blue has ambitious plans to expand its biomass refineries across the United States’ 140-million-acre corn belt and wheat basin, harvesting excess straw and stalks to produce billions of gallons of HD ethanol annually.

Shorter-term, as part of a six-year strategy, the company aims to attract $3.5 billion from capital markets to build four new refineries, each with twice the capacity of the Mason City facility. Taken together, the company says that the five refineries would provide abundant feedstock to New Energy Chemicals while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by over 1 million t/yr.

Beyond meeting its growing commitments to Dow, New Energy Chemicals’ phase-two expansion is expected to capitalize on both domestic and international demand for SAF, not least in Europe where SAF blending requirements become enshrined in legislation from 2030.

About the Author

Seán Ottewell | Editor-at-Large

Seán Crevan Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor-at-Large. Seán earned his bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick and his master's in radiation biochemistry at the University of London. He served as Science Officer with the UK Department of Environment’s Chernobyl Monitoring Unit’s Food Science Radiation Unit, London. His editorial background includes assistant editor, news editor and then editor of The Chemical Engineer, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ twice monthly technical journal. Prior to joining Chemical Processing in 2012 he was editor of European Chemical Engineer, European Process Engineer, International Power Engineer, and European Laboratory Scientist, with Setform Limited, London.

He is based in East Mayo, Republic of Ireland, where he and his wife Suzi (a maths, biology and chemistry teacher) host guests from all over the world at their holiday cottage in East Mayo

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