Petrochemical Technology Trends: Looking Beyond the Short Term Fix

Source: AIChE
  • Type:
    Conference Presentation
  • Conference Type:
    AIChE Spring Meeting and Global Congress on Process Safety
  • Presentation Date:
    April 27, 2015
  • Duration:
    30 minutes
  • Skill Level:
  • PDHs:

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The petrochemical industry is both driven by fundamental raw material and product supply-demand factors, and enabled by technologies that open the road to these drivers. To extend the metaphor, there are pent-up forces that have been sitting on the side of the track, waiting for the right vehicle for the force or forces to make their impact in the race. Natural gas, NGLs, Coal and Biomass have always been available as raw materials to the industry. What is different now? What makes the next decade so different for the petrochemical industry from other previous decades as it relates to the importance of these raw materials? Will technologies enable an emergence of a sustainable platform for the industry’s profitability beyond a brief wave of activity that passes into oblivion?

The answers to these questions are best described as speculative. The short view sees the rapid technological responses to the Shale Gas Revolution, the China Coal Renaissance or the Biochemical Emergence, to coin a few labels, as evidence that the innovative prowess of the industry is alive and well. Is this really so or is the technology response just a patchwork mix of old inefficient technologies dressed up to appear relevant to the short-term drivers?

For example, prominent technologies proposed as process solutions to the olefins product mix  change caused by lighter steam cracker feedstocks include metathesis (developed and commercialized in the 1980s), propane dehydrogenation (commercialized in the early 1990s), butane-to-butadiene (commercialized in the 1960s), methanol-to-olefins (developed in the 1980s and 1990s), gas-to-liquids (developed in the 1970s and commercialized in the early 1980s), and LPG-to-aromatics (developed in the 1980s and commercialized in the late 1990s).

A longer view would reveal that these current responses are geared more to an acknowledgement that the petrochemical industry’s technological risk appetite has diminished considerably in the past two decades, regardless of the potential for growth, and that true sustainability will require more than just meeting the short term wave. Still there are some new solutions also. Witness technologies such as the methane-to-olefins developments, membranes for olefin-paraffin separation, micro-channel reactors for FT and syngas production, and biomass-to-aromatics processes. This presentation examines the short and long-term industry technology trends and provides an overall guide to interpreting these strategic issues in current and future technology decisions.

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