INSIGHT: New technologies can drive BP competitiveness, strategy

08 November 2013 16:43  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--Process technology research at BP is yielding some potentially significant competitive advantage the company suggested on Thursday.

And the latest technology developments have the power to shift strategy as well as drive new investment and profits growth.

A new acetic acid process is likely to shift BP’s investment strategy for the widely used and fast growing chemical. It could be developed to link directly to a new ethanol dehydration technology which has the potential to provide ‘green’ ethylene, when produced from the right feedstock, to meet fast growing demand.

BP’s current acetic acid technology, Cativa, dates back to the late 1980s and its ‘XL’ form is pushing the boundaries of chemistry in terms of efficiency, the company says.

The methanol carbonylation process has been widely used by sector companies and is one of a number of ways of making the acid.

BP acquired the technology from Monsanto in 1983. The US firm had developed the rhodium/iodide catalyst system for methanol carbonylation in the 1970s.

Cativa uses iridium catalysts with promoters made from transition metals such as rhenium, ruthenium and osmium and has helped BP increase reaction activity and drive down water usage. The result has been bigger plants built at lower capital cost.

The latest process research undertaken by the energy giant’s petrochemical business at a research centre in Hull in the north east of England has yielded some potentially ground-breaking results.

The new SaaBre technology uses a proprietary catalyst system to produce acetic acid from synthesis gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen).

“This is the biggest breakthrough in acetic acid technology in the past 40 years,” chief executive of BP’s petrochemical business, Nick Elmslie, said this week.

According to BP, the principal advantages of the new acetic acid process technology are that it eliminates the need to purify carbon monoxide, does not require the purchase of methanol and contains no iodides. The latter means that the use of expensive metallurgy in the plant is avoided.

The technology is likely to be used initially in a 1m tonne/year project the details of which should be available in the first half of 2014. It can be used to process synthesis gas from natural gas, coal or other sources.

Plants using the new technology will be cheaper to build and run than those employing Cativa XL. The energy giant says also that that the material variable cost advantage would be greater than $50/tonne, particularly at low gas prices.

SaaBre is more than just an acetic acid technology, though, and could be a platform for producing methanol and ethanol from a relatively broad range of raw materials – anything that can be converted into synthesis gas.

BP said it will focus on natural gas (as the feedstock of synthesis gas).

The new process has the potential to set BP on a different path in acetic acid. And Elmslie expects further process cost savings as the company goes down the technology ‘experience curve’.

He also sees a change in emphasis when it comes to locating new acetic acid investments.

In the recent past, BP’s joint venture acetic acid plants have been built close to the market – in China and India, for example.

The new technology platform, clearly based on synthesis gas rather than a source of methanol, means that projects are likely to be sited close to sources of advantaged feedstock.

Also, research conducted at Hull has opened up more new technology opportunities for the company.

The Hummingbird ethanol dehydration technology will be licensed by BP. It can be used to produce between 50,000 tonnes/year and 300,000 tonnes/year of ethylene in a relatively simple single train plant.

The technology could be used wherever a source of ethanol was readily available, say from biomass, or in a more conventional petrochemical industry setting where further volumes of ethylene are needed.

The advantages of the technology are most significant in a stand-alone configuration, BP says, so the technology links to bioethanol very well.

The ‘green’ ethylene market is growing strongly and could easily quadruple in size, the head of technology for the downstream businesses at BP, Charles Cameron, said, with multiple units coming on-stream quickly.

There is also a clear fit between SaaBre and Hummingbird.

As the synthesis gas process technology is developed, it should be able to be tuned to make ethanol. On a large plant, some of that ethanol could be used to make ethylene using the new BP process.

Read Paul Hodges’ Chemicals and the Economy blog
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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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