Discussions about energy transition and increased electrification are all around us, whether they involve accelerating the ramp-up in renewable power sources such as wind and solar, facilitating the shift to electric vehicles, or switching to alternative fuels like hydrogen. But amid all the talk about the evolution to a low-carbon world — and away from oil and gas — there’s one area that is sometimes overlooked: petrochemicals. In the U.S., most steam crackers use natural gas liquids (NGLs) as their primary feedstocks, and they also consume a lot of energy — two big red flags in an increasingly ESG-focused world. And that’s giving bioethylene, billed as a green alternative to traditional ethylene, a moment in the spotlight. In today’s RBN blog, we look at how bioethylene is produced, how it differs from ethylene produced from traditional measures, and why it may someday evolve into an attractive alternative for the petrochemical industry, even though it’s far from a sure thing.
Ethylene has been a frequent topic in the RBN blogosphere, going back a few years to You’re the One That I Want, a blog in which we explored the basic mechanics of steam crackers and how they make their money. Earlier this year, in January, we investigated what we thought were really high ethylene margins in Ethylene, Ethylene, Prettiest Margin I Ever Seen. A couple of months later, in Can’t Get Enough, we looked at how the 2021 Deep Freeze wreaked havoc on Gulf Coast crackers, causing ethylene prices to spike even higher.
Ethylene is the cornerstone building block of the petrochemical industry, the precursor for everything from food packaging to construction materials, along with detergents, lubricants, PVC pipes, antifreeze, and all things polyethylene. The strong global demand for ethylene, along with efforts to meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, has led some to look at bioethylene as a greener and potentially economical alternative.
To produce ethylene, steam crackers heat up a mixture of hydrocarbon feedstocks and steam, then force the stream into huge furnaces at about the speed of sound. In the furnaces, the feedstocks-and-steam mix is superheated to 850°C (1,560°F), consuming a lot of fuel in the process. That heat “cracks” the relatively stable “paraffinic” hydrocarbon molecules into their much more reactive “olefinic” petrochemical cousins — hence the steam cracker nickname. After that, the mixed stream is rapidly cooled or “quenched” to stop the reaction, and injected water cools the mix further. The stream is then sent through a series of distillation columns (very similar to an NGL fractionator) to separate the mix into individual petrochemicals.
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