INSIGHT: ExxonMobil focused on feedstocks, costs, processes

INSIGHT: ExxonMobil focused on feedstocks, costs, processes

05 October 2009 18:17  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--Where do you focus your technology efforts in petrochemicals?

The sector doesn’t attract a great deal of research and development (R&D) investment, at least relative to some other parts of the chemicals business and relative to sales.

But technology is a cornerstone of petrochemicals; it always has been.

ExxonMobil has a great term for its work on feedstock capabilities (flexibility) and cracking technology, for instance. “We call it self-help,” said ExxonMobil Chemical president Stephen Pryor, who was speaking on the sidelines of the 43rd European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) meeting on Monday.

The company’s technology programmes are focused on three areas, Pryor said: feedstocks, lower-cost processes and advantaged products.

The company was showcasing in Berlin some of the plastics it has developed to advance automobile design and particularly the sort of weight-saving applications that will become increasingly prevalent across that industry.

It was also talking a great deal about its polymer-based lithium ion battery separator, which is more than likely to find increasing use.

The point with this technology focus, however, is, as Pryor said: “If it doesn’t fit, we don’t do it.”

The (petro) chemical industry has always been about process technology. It has been driven by process innovations that initially lead to novel products but essentially also to lower costs.

And the lower-cost drive is central to ExxonMobil's thinking. Producing something better more cheaply could be the name of the game.

ExxonMobil’s work on steam cracking technology is a case in point. The company brought the first steam cracker on stream in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1941 and it continues to work on cracker design.

Its cracking research is focused on improving energy efficiency, lowering emissions and, critically, the expansion of feedstock flexibility.

“We are also working on some breakthrough concepts that could significantly change the nature of cracking,” said Pryor in Berlin, but this was only a tantalising reference to what the company is up to.

“A lot of it goes back to feedstock,” he said. And it is built around the search for the next wave of advantaged feed.

The nature of cracking will have to change as finite resources of advantaged ethane are exploited. Middle East producers currently are facing their own problems with reduced ethane availability. They have to crack alternatives.

The key is feedstock flexibility, and to build in that flexibility, Pryor said. The company’s new cracker in Singapore, for instance, will have significant flexibility built in.

Currently, in the US, the company is processing an extremely light feedstock slate but it depends where in the world you are. Vacuum gas oil has become and attractive cracker feedstock for ExxonMobil Chemical in Asia and in Europe.

Sometimes it can be difficult to justify the economics, but over time the shift will still be towards heavier feeds. And the focus will have to be on the flexibility of the cracker to supply the olefins and aromatics needed downstream to produce advantaged products. In ExxonMobil’s world, premium products can only be made from a “low-cost, world-scale manufacturing platform”.

“Our strength has always been to do it as part of the integrated complex,” said Pryor.

ExxonMobil Chemical is building up a much stronger production platform in Asia with its up and coming plants in China and Singapore. The plant at Fujian, China, is the country’s first integrated refinery and petrochemical complex, and Pryor said he expects it to be a model for the future.

The Singapore complex perhaps reflects best what the company can do as it shifts its investment dollars to Asia.

“We have put in exceptional feedstock flexibility,” said Pryor, including the ability to crack very heavy feeds. “We have a wide range of products,” he added, including metallocene polyethylene.

The new plants at the complex include a 1m tonne/year flexible feed cracker and downstream polyethylene, polypropylene, aromatics, oxo alcohols and specialty elastomer units.

Making the right products from the right platform at the right time has always been vitally important in this business. ExxonMobil Chemicals has geared itself up to apply the technology, and the money, to capture developing Asia petrochemicals demand growth.

For more on ExxonMobil Chemical visit ICIS company intelligence

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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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