INSIGHT: Petrochemical makers have to challenge energy use

08 July 2013 15:48  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--The work may be ongoing but the targets are immense and the chemical industry cannot lose sight of the potential.

If chemical producers were able to apply catalysis even more successfully, energy savings close to the annual (primary) energy use of Germany could be achieved by 2050, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions cut to the same scale, a report suggested last month.

Changing the primary production processes for olefins, aromatics and ammonia could go a long way towards delivering the results.

A move to the wider use of bio-based raw materials and eventually to carbon capture and storage (CSC) for some processes could take the energy saving potential for the sector steps further.

The trick in all cases will be to have the political support and the corporate will in place to help make the process changes work.

“Awareness is growing on the need to turn political statements and analytical work into concrete action,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) and its collaborators said.

The agency is helping develop a series of roadmaps for the technologies that might help save energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The roadmap for the chemical industry, the second sector-specific energy roadmap produced by the IEA, has been developed with Germany-based society for chemical engineering and biotechnology, Dechema and the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA). It is showcased in Washington this month and in Europe in September.

“The chemical and petrochemical sector is by far the largest industrial energy user, accounting for roughly 10% of total worldwide industrial final energy demand and 7% of global industrial GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the report says.

These are the sort of statistics that make politicians sit up and think.

Governments can help by encouraging energy efficiency and tackling energy waste.

The challenge for industry is to prioritise projects and to allocate the capital that will make further energy-efficiency possible.

The chemical industry may be a huge energy user but reaps the benefits of more effective energy use. Its products also have to be more widely recognised as key contributors to better energy efficiency generally.

New production processes, however, have the potential to deliver great change.

The report suggests that by investing US$13.2bn a year (on a 2010 basis) the sector can sustain a 2% improvement in energy efficiency.

But the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and there is a clear recognition that some step-change technological developments will be needed to ensure that real energy and GHG emission savings can be made as global chemicals production increases.

The IEA and Dechema have taken different scenarios-based approaches to the challenge but arived at broadly similar results. The energy agency starts from a target energy reduction figure and looks at the sort of technology shifts and policy frameworks that might be needed to approach those goals.

Dechema has focused on the production processes for 18 products which between them account for 80% of the energy demand for the chemical and petrochemical industry and 75% of GHG emissions.

The energy intensity of these products could be cut by between 20% and 40% with catalyst and other process improvements.

Steam cracking heads the bill with the catalytic cracking of naphtha and possibly ethane having the greatest potential for energy use reduction for the sector.

“Several advanced olefin technologies could allow for substantial reductions in energy consumption, with two showing the greatest potential,” the report says.

The wide adoption of catalytic cracking of naphtha – a commercial plant is operating in China – could lead to energy savings of 30% to 40% if some of the older existing crackers were replaced.

Methanol to olefins (MTO) technology is an important emerging process route to olefins although the traditional route to methanol is hardly energy efficient.

But new ways of making hydrogen from natural gas and then making methanol hold some promise for much less energy usage.

BASF, Linde and ThyssenKrupp Uhde, for instance, started in July a research project to look into the more environmentally sustainable production of synthesis gas (used to make methanol) from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

The Dechema approach to its energy use scenarios has been to investigate the process technologies for the top 18 greatest energy-consuming chemical and petrochemical products and looking at business as usual, best practicable technology and step-out technology approaches.

“Catalysis can play a key role in enabling game changers to uncover alternative reaction pathways, as shown with the historic example of the Haber-Bosch ammonia process,” the report says.

“More recent efforts include improved hydrogen generation for steam methane reformers or upgrading of bio-oils, as well as light alkane upgrading (direct route for methane to methanol, propanol, etc).

“Other areas include: synthesis of aromatics from lignin, ethanol or methane; direct synthesis of hydrogen peroxide from hydrogen and oxygen; or direct epoxidation of propylene with oxygen.

“The list of such potential ‘dream reactions’ is long, and catalysis will play a key role in enabling such new reaction pathways.”

The roadmap considers two potential game changers: the use of hydrogen from renewable sources to make ammonia and methanol, and the use of biomass as feedstock.

Read Paul Hodges’ Chemicals and the Economy blog
Bookmark John Richardson and Malini Hariharan’s Asian Chemical Connections blog

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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