Transition in the Chemical Industry

By Richard H. Schlosberg, Ph.D.

We have entered into an era of significant transition in the chemical industry. The following items are diagnostic of this change.

What does the chemical industry need to do to thrive in this period of great transition? Companies need to achieve raw material supply security (including price), overcome continuing image problems, and generate new technologies to provide solutions that customers want and need. An overriding issue is that of feedstock costs and volatility. To quote a senior industry executive: “There’s a problem facing the North American petrochemical industry right now. High North American energy prices - the highest in the world - challenge our competitiveness in a globally traded commodity market.1

Where are the technology opportunities? For the chemical industry today, many technologies are decades old.

While the existing technologies are long in the tooth, “there is little doubt that new process technologies with shutdown economics that might have reached full commercialization between 1980 and 2000 are virtually nonexistent.2

Since feedstocks are a major part of most chemical process costs, this is where one might look for new technology opportunities. Many processes are built on relatively expensive, highly purified olefins or purified aromatics. Polyolefins, VCM, acrylic acid, ethylene oxide, propylene oxide, terephthalic acid and others are built from purified monomers which in turn are generated from refinery or gas cracking processes that include significant purification steps. Some have begun to seek opportunities to replace purified olefins with either olefin containing streams and/or with paraffins or with methanol (syngas). Thus, major research efforts are underway to convert propane directly to acrylic acid rather than use propylene. Another example is the partial oxidation of ethane to acetic acid to replace the current technology that employs oxidative carbonylation of methanol. Are there other opportunities of this sort?

Another area that appears ripe for a relook is the area where the current technology generates two stoichiometric products. For example, the pathway to phenol is to alkylate benzene with propylene, peroxidize the cumene and decompose to generate a mole of phenol and a mole of acetone. Another example is the peroxidation route to propylene oxide. Here is one version of the Halcon/ARCO process, isobutene is oxidized to the peroxide which in turn transfers an oxygen to propylene. The products are one mole of propylene oxide and one mole of tert-butanol. The by-product tert-butanol has been converted to MTBE. Today, it appears that the market for phenol is growing more rapidly than the acetone market prompting the question: is there a direct route to phenol from benzene? Also, with MTBE under environmental question, researchers are asking how they could make propylene oxide directly.

Yet another area to consider is that of catalysis. There always remains opportunities for value to be delivered through new catalysts with higher turnover numbers, longer life, and higher selectivities.

With all of the attention today on low cost manufacturing processes, energy conservation, sustainable chemistry and related items, it’s time to think hard about innovative solutions and new technologies to reinvigorate the chemical industry.

A final word: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.3

References:

  1. North American Petrochemicals: Walking a tight rope. Speaker: Dr. Ramesh Ramachandran, Dow Chemical Canada, Inc., President and HC&E Olefins Business Director, CERI 2005 North American Natural Gas Conference & Calgary Energy Show 2005, Calgary, Alberta 03/07/2005.
  2. Jeffrey S. Plotkin in “The Chemical Industry at the Millenium”, Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 53.
  3. H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920 US editor (1880-1956)