INSIGHT: Porto Torres to close, only to be born again

Author: Nigel Davis


(ICIS)--Italy’s energy giant Eni and the bioplastics producer Novamont believe they are setting a precedent and creating something of global importance.

Within a week, Eni’s petrochemical arm, Polimeri Europa, will close its 250,0000 tonne/year cracker at Porto Torres in Sardinia, officially now on a temporary basis. Units downstream from the cracker will also shut, the company says, as plans are set in motion to create a new bio-processing complex to tap into the growing market for bio-based chemicals and elastomers.

A €500m ($714m) project, Matrica (‘mother’ in the local Gallurese dialect), is taking shape in Sardinia.

Some seven bio-based production units are planned for the Porto Torres site which, within the next six years, are to be used to produce monomers, polymers, lubricants additives and fillers. Eni has plans to build a €250m biomass-driven power station to supply electricity to a complex that will be integrated with on-site biomass feedstock and local agricultural production.

“The bio-based chemical complex at Porto Torres will be one of the most important in the sector at a global level due to its innovative integrated production chain, its size and the massive overall installed capacity of 350,000 tonnes/year of bioproducts,” the companies said last week.

The plan is an example of what companies might do to capitalise on existing infrastructure as more bio-processing is introduced. It also points a way forward for some of the most challenged parts of the European chemical industry which are operating in an increasingly competitive global market environment.

Some chemical production sites in Europe struggle to justify continued operation, but the closure of major production facilities remains politically unacceptable. The joint venture plan drawn up by Polimeri Europa and Novamont suggests that there is a way forward as a transition is made towards a future that could be more sustainable in more ways than one.

The companies aim to create an integrated product chain from vegetable oil to bioplastics. They also intend to tap in to a market for bio-based chemicals that was forecast by Lux Research in September 2010 to grow by 17.7% a year, reaching 8.1m tonnes annually in 2015. A research centre will also be located at the site.

“The project hopes to impact positively on the national chemical industry by bringing to market a virtuous production cycle based on technological innovation and sustainability whilst creating employment in the local area,” the companies say.

“A fundamental and innovative element of the project is its integrated supply chain and the raw material to produce the vegetable oil will be grown on site, in synergy with local food production.”

The new production units will be brought onstream in three distinct phases, but all the traditional chemical plants at the site except those producing nitrile rubber (NBR) will be shut down.

Some units at Porto Torres those to produce phenol and acetone, for example have been idle for years. Vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production were mothballed in 2009.

The current status of the production of other chemicals from the cracker and downstream is unknown, although the site has high density polyethylene (HDPE), propylene, benzene, toluene, cyclohexanol and linear alkyl benzene (LAB) capacities.

The first phase of the transformation to bio-processing will see the construction of a bio-monomers plant/bio-refinery and a bio-lubricants plant. Intermediates from the first of these will then be used in next-stage steps to make bio-additives and bio-fillers for the rubber industry.

The first-phase plants will be scaled up in a third phase which will also see the construction of a bioplastics plant. Novamont has said that demand for its biopolymers, which are based on vegetable oil and corn starch, has in recent years been growing by 20-30% a year.

The switch of feedstock marks a great step change at Porto Torres but one which other chemical production sites in Europe and elsewhere may yet be forced, or want, to take.

Polimeri Europa is selling the transition in Sardinia by talking about utilising the skilled workforce that will be available when the existing petrochemical units shut down. When the site comes into full operation in 2015/2016, the total number of jobs there will increase by about 100 to around 685, it says.

“The new system will integrate agriculture with the chemical industry to create the bases for more competitiveness in the region, more opportunities for work and development, and more cooperation between the local government and industrial and agriculture infrastructures,” said the Novamont CEO, Catia Bastioli (translated from Italian).

($1 = €0.70)

Read Doris de Guzman’s ICIS Green Chemicals blog