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Crude Oil to Chemicals Complexes and now Gas to Chemicals Complexes? Life is sure getting complex!

09 February 2021 Dr. Jeffrey S. Plotkin

So-called "crude oil to chemicals" refineries or COTC is a trend that has received a lot of attention and investment over the last several years. In 2019 in China, Hengli started-up a huge 20 million barrels per year crude oil refinery with the aim of maximizing chemicals production, up to 40% of output (see image below), primarily para-xylene to be used for their polyester production. In 2020, Zhejiang Petroleum & Chemicals also started up a similar refinery in China. Other such crude oil to chemicals refineries are either starting up, in construction, or under development. With forecasts of flattening gasoline and diesel demand, such highly integrated refineries that emphasize chemicals production over fuels, will likely become increasingly important. But from a purely process chemistry point of view (which is how I tend the view the world) nothing much new here to report, mostly using and/or modifying existing technologies - on steroids! (My engineer colleagues, I am sure, will be quick to tell me that such huge jumps in scale are no easy feats, and I respect that.)

The recent announcement of an agreement by Sibur, Gazprom Neft, and Uzbekneftegaz to study the "creation of a gas to chemicalscomplex" using methanol to olefins (MTO) technology in Uzbekistan is very interesting. Why do I say that? Historically, the only large volume chemical products made from natural gas are ammonia and methanol - not olefins, not aromatics. However, that paradigm started to change in 2011 when the first MTO plants started up in China and now there is over 3 million metric tons per year of ethylene capacity in China via MTO. Although, some of the methanol feedstock for these plants is home-grown coal-based methanol, some is imported methanol made from natural gas. But I think it is fair to say that such MTO plants cannot be described as "gas to chemicals complexes", considering that long voyage of imported methanol across the sea.

While the product slate for the proposed gas to chemicals MTO complex in Uzbekistan has not been explicitly announced, the very recent announcement (Feb 2, 2021) by Versalis that they are licensing LDPE and EVA technology to this project gives some indication about how the ethylene will be used. This complex will be the first time that MTO or its cousin technology, methanol to propylene (MTP), will be used outside of China. Other such gas to chemicals projects had earlier been announced and under study but failed to make it, at least so far, to the finish line. For instance, in 2014, BASF had announced their intention of building a gas-based MTP complex in the U.S. but this project was scuttled in 2016 owing to poor market conditions. And in 2017, NPC in Iran had announced that they were going to license MTP technology from Air Liquide/Lurgi but due to international tensions and sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, this continuing relationship is unclear. Nevertheless, it now appears NPC has made progress on its own MTP technology and a gas to chemicals complex in Iran may still be in the cards.

For a more in-depth discussion and understanding of how the interaction of technology, markets and economics drive profitability in the petrochemical industry, why not considering joining one my virtual courses? I promise to unravel and breakdown all of this "complexity".


Posted 09 February 2021 by Dr. Jeffrey S. Plotkin, Vice President of Training & Education, IHS Chemical



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