Focus story by Bill Bowen
HOUSTON (ICIS)--It has been 2.5 years since a wave of new hydrochloric acid (HCl) plants added capacity to the US market, though two of the six plants that were expected to launch at that time have yet to start up.
But in the coming weeks, two plants that will recycle waste output to make HCl and caustic soda are expected to begin production, including one that has struggled to get its process right.
The first is a new $50m plant near El Paso, Texas, which will take the brine effluent from the city’s desalinisation plant, as well as brackish water from the city’s deep wells, as feedstock.
Enviro Water Minerals expects to begin production later this month with plans to make fresh water and 30,000 ton/year of HCl, two commodities in demand in dry oil-drilling west Texas. The plant will also make some 10,000/dst (dry short ton)/year of liquid caustic soda, in addition to incremental volumes of magnesium hydroxide and gypsum.
“We think we’ve found places to go sell the chemicals,” said Kim Fletcher, director of chemical sales and marketing for the project. “Our isolation here has an advantage.”
The city of El Paso will buy the water and oilfield exploration and development companies will buy the HCl to prepare drilled bore holes for the hydraulic fracturing process. Demand for HCl has grown fast for drilling purposes.
Its proximity to the Permian Basin oil patch means it can offer HCl at prices that do not include expensive transportation costs from the US Gulf production centres, Fletcher explained.
“We’re about $100 away from Houston,” he said.
The second plant to start up is the Skyonic Skymine in San Antonio, Texas. The plant has a published production capacity of 183,000 ton/year of HCl and uses a carbon capture technology and waste from a local cement plant.
The plant is under new ownership, Carbonfree Chemicals, and financed by venture capital, individual investors and large petrochemical conglomerates, according to Carbonfree’s website.
The plant has been undergoing refitting and refinements to improve its production performance, and Carbonfree hopes to have its running in the third quarter.
The size of the Skyonic plant, its rail access and proximity to the oilfields of west Texas make its impact on the US market significant, competitors and distributors said.
“They will provide a new layer of competition out there,” said a distributor, who will compete against the plant.
Skyonic is the brainchild of Joe Jones, who drove development of the project, attracted investors and federal money to support development of the carbon-capture technology and led it through a long and failed start-up period.
Skyonic and a plant in Eddyville, Iowa - developed by Harris-Ford Chlor-Alkali - never ran at expectations.
In 2014, when those plants were attempting to start up, four others succeeded. Erco Worldwide added capacity in Wisconsin and Saskatchewan, with 197,000 wet ton/year. Oxychem added 160,000 wet ton/year in Niagara Falls, New York, and US Magnesium started up a 120,000 wet ton/year plant in Utah.
The Harris-Ford plant in Iowa was built to supply a Cargill corn milling plant. It never reached its production expectations and is now the subject of a dispute with Cargill over financing of the project and its failure to perform.
Since late 2014, when those plants were inaugurating production, oil prices collapsed and demand from the oilfield dried up.
Oilfield demand bottomed out in May 2016 and has been slowly rebuilding. The number of rigs operating now have doubled over the past year to 870 in US fields, but are approaching only half their number of 1,930 in late 2014.
“Now is a better time to launch a plant than back then,” a person familiar with the Skyonic project said.
Other major US producers of HCl include Olin, Formosa Plastics, Westlake Chemical, BASF, Covestro, Huntsman and Jones-Hamilton.