A significant drop in the purchase price of methanol on the global market, from a high of $400/ton in 2018 to the current value of less than $250/ton, has put considerable pressure on producers’ margins. In China, methanol makers must contend with an additional issue: most are located inland while the majority of methanol-to-olefin (MTO) plants are sited in coastal areas with easy access to low-cost imported methanol.
To further compound the problem, approximately half of the methanol produced in China goes for MTO production — which is forecast to slow down considerably in the next five years. According to the latest figures, the overall methanol compound annual growth rate is expected to drop from the 10.6% experienced from 2014–2019 to 4.3% from 2019–2024. This undoubtedly will result in overcapacity and lower the operating rate of methanol plants from a current level of approximately 93% to 80% by 2023. To remain competitive, methanol producers in China urgently require innovative solutions for improving their cost base.
Addressing A Major Challenge
China Energy Corp. is the largest coal-to-chemicals company globally. It owns and operates a world-class coal-to-liquids plant in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province (Ningxia Coal Industry Co. Ltd., NCIC), that produces methanol that serves as feedstock for the company’s methanol-to-propylene (MTP) unit. However, methanol supply had not kept up with its demands. The company needed a reliable way to quickly improve productivity and decided to upgrade to the MegaMax 800 methanol synthesis catalyst (Figure 1). NCIC selected the new catalyst because of its higher activity, which was expected to increase methanol yield with no rise in feedstock consumption, and improve overall productivity of both the methanol and downstream MTP plants.
Figure 1. New catalyst is delivering higher productivity and selectivity for Chinese producer.
Clariant developed the MegaMax 800 catalyst specifically to provide higher activity, up to 40% better than previous catalyst generations, and superior selectivity towards methanol production — even at very low reactor temperatures and pressures. Depending on the facility’s design and processes, a producer can expect to increase methanol capacity by as much as 10%. This results in greater carbon efficiency and methanol yield while reducing synthesis gas consumption. Moreover, the catalyst is exceptionally robust, easily tolerating demanding daily operation and protecting against process upsets.
Loaded and started-up at the NCIC plant in August 2018, the new catalyst achieved an anticipated operation load of 102% after just two months. Even though it currently is running at variable capacity, the 1-million-ton/yr methanol plant is experiencing considerably higher yield at lower energy and feedstock costs. Compared to operation with the previous catalyst, synthesis gas feedstock consumption has decreased by 40 million m3/yr. Assuming a unit cost of 0.4 RMB/m3, the plant annually should save around RMB 16 million (approximately $2.3 million).
The facility also is reporting noticeably lower formation of byproducts such as ethanol in the crude methanol product. This reduces steam consumption for the downstream distillation unit and, thus, adds to the plant’s total profitability. Based upon its 1-million-ton/yr design capacity, the methanol unit likely will save 238,000 tons of steam annually, which equals RMB 6.73 million (nearly $1 million) in financial value to the company. Following the successful installation of the catalyst, Clariant also recommended reducing the steam drum pressure from 2.2 to 1.85 MPa, allowing the plant to benefit from the catalyst’s low temperature activity at constant feedstock consumption.
A Significant Success
In the coal-to-chemicals industry, the greater the competition, the greater the need for innovation becomes. In the face of increasing price pressure on methanol and its own growing demand for the chemical, NCIC has succeeded in swiftly enhancing its process and cost efficiencies through collaboration with Clariant and use of the MegaMax 800 catalyst.
After only about one year since use of the catalyst began, the company already is profiting from its superior performance — and benefits are expected to grow. The successful results are particularly significant for Clariant because NCIC is the first adopter in China for MegaMax 800 using Air Liquide’s Lurgi LP methanol technology. Clariant is committed to continuously advancing its state-of-the-art methanol catalysts and processes to maximize production efficiency and reliability for its customers.
CHRISTIAN LIBRERA, PhD, is head of the syngas business segment of Clariant Catalysts, Munich, Germany. Email him at [email protected].