US crackers will be fuelled by hydrogen to reduce carbon footprint

Author: Joseph Chang


NEW YORK (ICIS)--US crackers will eventually be fuelled by hydrogen rather than natural gas as the main energy source to significantly bring down their carbon footprint, the former CEO of Equate and MEGlobal said.

“What I think will happen in the US is a lot of the crackers will go to hydrogen as their fuel because crackers are huge consumers of energy. And once hydrogen becomes the driver, the plastic itself becomes a lot greener in terms of its carbon footprint,” said Ramesh Ramachandran in an interview with ICIS.

Ramachandran was CEO of Kuwait-based polyethylene (PE) producer EQUATE from 2017-2020 and CEO of UAE-based ethylene glycols (EG) producer MEGlobal from 2009-2017. He is now principal at consultancy MEGVIN Advisors.

Adding recycled content to plastics coming out of downstream units would further improve the environmental profile of the crackers, he noted.

“If you say that any packaging material you use in the US will have at least 30% recycled content, then I think you will have taken almost 70-80% of the [carbon] out of the ecosystem. And then you have pretty much won the war,” said Ramachandran.

Hydrogen used to heat crackers would completely change the carbon footprint of ethylene and downstream products such as polyethylene (PE) and ethylene glycol (EG) for the energy intensive chemical industry, he noted.

“You will need to generate the power from solar [and wind] and convert this to hydrogen and then get that hydrogen to a cracker which is why this is at least 5 years away. But the pressure is very high to get there,” said Ramachandran.

This would be the green hydrogen made from renewable energy with zero emissions.

Hydrogen could be set to play a major role in the crackers of the future – not only to heat the crackers but in a new process to produce ethylene from ethane.

US-based start-up EcoCatalytic Technologies is working with Dow and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on “Integrated Hydrogen Combustion with Energy Efficient Ethylene Production”, as outlined in a June 2019 presentation given to the US Department of Energy.

EcoCatatytic’s IFBHC (integrated fluidised bed hydrogen combustion) technology could replace traditional steam cracking. Rather than cracking ethane, it would use oxygen transfer agents (OTAs) to convert ethane to ethylene “via the selective combustion of hydrogen in the presence of hydrocarbon feed and products”, according to the presentation.

This would significantly reduce energy consumption and emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the latter by around 75-80%. It aims to scale up the technology to 1m tonnes/year of ethylene capacity.

In October 2020, Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said the company was “working on about four technologies on the process technology side in the ethylene and propylene production area that are all geared towards being able to build future plants that could potentially be zero carbon crackers, and also being able to retrofit existing plants to get a 20-40% reduction in CO2 footprint”.

Separate from the EcoCatalytic technology, Dow is working with Shell to electrify steam crackers (e-crackers), replacing fossil fuel (typically natural gas) combustion to heat the ethylene furnaces. And if the electricity is generated from renewables such as solar and wind, that would reduce the carbon footprint further.

BASF, SABIC and Linde are also working on e-crackers. Typically steam cracker reactions require temperatures of about 850 degrees Celsius, they noted. By using electricity from renewable sources, the companies project the new technology could slash CO2 emissions by as much as 90%.

Interview article by Joseph Chang

Thumbnail image shows polyethylene (PE), one of the main products made from ethylene.