The big challenges

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As delegates gather for this year’s European Petrochemical Association meeting in the unreal world of Monaco (unreal for the 99.9 per cent recurring of us who don’t own Ferraris), I thought it was worth summarising some of the issues discussed on this blog over the last few months.

We’ve dealt with:

*Oil-price volatility and the likelihood that high and volatile crude is here to stay. Crude at or around $100 a barrel seems to be a new long-term level with the strong possibility that geopolitical shocks could send costs much higher. Supply and demand balances remain tight and as soon as global economic growth recovers we will see much higher prices – meaning that the recovery could be nipped in the bud. Are we heading for a new economic climate where recoveries are constantly set back by rising energy costs? For every one barrel we are discovering, we are consuming three.

*The new credit environment that might well emerge from tougher banking regulations. No longer will it be possible for a truck driver from Iowa earning $20,000 a year to borrow at ridiculous multiples of his salary and at “teaser” interest rates. How these regulations will effect emerging markets his harder to read as Asian governments and consumers are in far better financial shape than those in the West. Many of the banks in Asia have been more prudent. But the events in the US will surely lower the appetite for risk globally – and there is no guarantee that the financial-rescue package will work. Ask your consultants or inhouse researchers you use whether their demand-growth predictions factor in the possiblility of lower growth because consumers no longer have access to as much credit.

*Innovation will be the key as the environment becomes a bigger and bigger issue for the chemicals industry. You need right technologies and the right kind of staff. As there is a possibility of a global carbon tax or carbon cap-and-trade system, do estimates of what this might cost need to be factored into feasibility studies? How feasible will it therefore be – given both high energy costs and the possibility of a price on emissions – to continue building plants long distances from major consumption markets?

*One of the big areas of innovation will be attempts to break the link between the refinery and petrochemical industries. BASF is claiming it could be as little as five years away from breakthroughs in catalyst technology that could change the industry forever, enabling highly competitive petchems to be produced from biogass, natural gas or coal.

And finally, other theme I haven’t blogged on yet but will do are plant and energy efficiency. Some very interesting research projects are taking place at the National University of Singapore chemical engineering department into monitoring the exact output of plants in differennt climate conditions and a model that might enable producers to much more accurately predict changes in yields from switching feedstocks. Much more later…

Meanwhile, have a great meeting – and let’s hope the economic conditions improve.

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