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Ethylene production growth drives new global industry standards

Ethylene is the basic building block of the petrochemical industry. Over time, new challenges will drive the technology as it evolves and improves. These challenges vary by timeline and region.

Recent overview

From 2000 to 2013, worldwide ethylene production increased from 100 million metric tons/year (metric MMtpy) to 155 MMtpy. More than 70% of the new capacity is from two parts of the world—the Middle East (ME) and China. The ME’s production capacity increased from 6.5 metric MMtpy to 30 metric MMtpy, while production in China grew from 4.3 metric MMtpy to 20 metric MMtpy.

In the ME during the same time, most new projects were based on very large ethylene capacity plant designs. Since 2005, 15 steam crackers using light gas as the feedstock were designed with a base-plate capacity exceeding 1 metric MMtpy. After this wave of capital investment, world-scale ethylene plant capacity increased from 1.3 metric MMtpy to 1.5 metric MMtpy. A decade earlier, the design base for a world-scale, grassroots ethylene complex ranged from 0.6 metric MMtpy to 0.8 metric MMtpy—half of the throughput of present-day mega-ethylene facilities. This new scale has improved the specific investment cost.

In the past, the growth of the Chinese ethylene industry was based on liquid feedstocks. Due to limited hydrocarbon resources, in particular, naphtha availability (the industry standard in the 1990s), about half of the new ethylene capacity was based on heavy-feedstock cracking (end-boiling points above 1,000°F/540°C). This feedstock shift to the lower-cost, heavier hydrocarbons has improved profitability.

Current situation

At present, the wide availability of inexpensive ethane from shale gas in North America is reviving the petrochemical industry. Most ethylene projects have a world-scale capacity of 1.5 metric MMtpy, as demonstrated in the ME a few years ago. Additionally, many existing LPG/naphtha crackers are being adapted to crack ethane to improve profitability. The shift from naphtha to ethane has drastically reduced propylene production from steam crackers. On-purpose propylene production projects based on new technical solutions are being awarded to fill this olefin gap.

In Europe and India, to maintain competitiveness, new projects are being developed to produce ethylene from refinery offgases. Capturing the petrochemical vs. fuel gas value of the olefins can help compensate for expensive naphtha usage. In India, a recent cracker project for Reliance is the best example of a new world-scale ethylene complex (1.4 metric MMtpy) based only on refinery offgases as the feedstock.

Opportunities in the future

At locations where hydrocarbon feedstock is lacking, the petrochemical industry has developed new technologies to produce olefins from coal. In China, for example, these technologies currently provide only 2% of olefins production. By 2020, the footprint of ethylene based on coal is expected to grow to nearly 20%.

For the ME, new steam-cracker projects are shifting to mixed feedstock (ethane/LPG/naphtha/gasoil) to provide a wider range of olefins while maintaining the flexibility to adapt production to meet market demand. These “mixed-cracker units” may become the new standard of the ethylene industry.

Most importantly, the petrochemical industry is adapting to meet more stringent health, safety and environmental (HSE) norms. This is particularly true in the US, where new technologies are available to satisfy air-emission regulations, such as those detailed in the US Clean Air Act. In addition, NOx emissions have been reduced by a factor of two over the last decade. Globally, new waste-treatment technologies are being implemented to reduce impacts on the environment. Adaption to these technologies is driving new standards for design, review and operation to ensure a safe working environment.

Innovative industry

The petrochemical industry is dynamic; it continuously finds new solutions to the changing marketplace. In approaching the next decade, operating companies that understand the global market drivers and the latest technologies will provide the best solutions to improve profitability and comply with the HSE rules.

For questions or to give feedback:
Thad Pittman 
+1 (713) 525-4605

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Harry D. Brookby II
+ 1 (713) 525-4675

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Project News

Boxscore Construction Analysis:
Business Trends: Asia and Europe join the feedstock evolution with steam crackers

From the April 2018 issue of Hydrocarbon Processing


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