This week's news headlines included a very important announcement about the wasteful, and environmentally damaging, process of associated gas flaring.
Ten years ago, the World Bank set up a group known as the Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership. The partners convened at a conference this week in London, with the intention of setting targets to reduce the amount of gas that is flared.
The agreement created an ambitious target of cutting gas flaring by 30 percent over five years. Most other commentators have focused on what this means in terms of lowering CO2 emissions, or how many vehicles it could fuel. However, little has been said about what it could mean for the chemical industry.
Even if the methane that forms the bulk of associated gas is used for fuel (either as natural gas or as feedstock for a GTL reactor), the ethane, propane and butane that typically form 15 percent of the gas mixture could be a valuable chemical feedstock.
Current flare gas levels are of the order of 140 billion m3 per annum. If 30 percent of this made available as feedstock, and 15 percent of that is the C2 to C4 component, that is sufficient to produce 4.4 million tonnes per annum (tpa) of olefins.
As a proportion of the current global usage of ethylene, propylene and butadiene, that is still quite small. For example, it could provide feedstock for the following:
- 2% of global PE production
- 3.5% of global PP production
- 12.5% of global polymer-grade butadiene
However, it can be viewed another way. If one looks beyond these polymers, which are produced in huge quantities, to the next largest markets for olefins, then this flare gas would be enough to meet the entire market's needs in some cases. For example, it could supply enough feedstock (approximately) for:
- all of the ethylene needed for the global PAO lubricants market
- 50% of the propylene needed for global acrylic acid production
- enough butadiene to meet the entire global demand for HMDA for PA 6,6, with enough spare to supply 30% of global caprolactam production too
Viewed this way, a reduction in associated gas flaring of this level really is significant. However, these feedstocks will only become available if the oil industry chooses to make them so, instead of simply using for carbon capture and storage initiatives.
New technology in the news today provides food for thought for chemists and materials scientists interested in sustainable technology and in industry convergence trends.
The technology addresses the challenge of storing renewable energy generated at times when it is not needed, for example by wind farms during the night when electricity demand is low. It is in the news today because the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) is holding a conference to discuss its commercial potential.
It involves the use of cryogenics: air is chilled and liquefied using the generated "wrong-time" electricity. When the power is needed in the grid, the air is allowed to return to ambient temperature and, as it vapourises, it powers a turbine to regenerate electricity.
The element of the technology that most interests me, however, is that carbon dioxide (CO2) must be removed from the air before it is chilled, otherwise it would freeze. Other commentators have thus far not spoken about what ramifications this could have. However, it does suggest that, if it is ever put into commercial use, the technology could become a source of large quantities of high purity CO2 as a low-cost by-product.
Rather than being released back into the atmosphere, perhaps this CO2 could be put to use as the feedstock for a number of sustainable chemistry processes that are currently being developed.
Companies involved in developing materials from CO2 include:
- Bayer, with CO2-based polyurethanes
- Novomer, with new materials such as polyethylene carbonate
- BASF and Purac, whose bio-succinic acid technology includes CO2 as a feedstock
Whilst it is still too early to say whether this technology will ever become commercial, it nevertheless provides another example of industry convergence: developments in the renewable energy industry potentially providing a knock-on benefit for the renewable materials market.
During our most recent Analyst Briefing, the Chemicals & Materials research team discussed the role that Globalisation as a megatrend is playing in the development of our industry. It is undoubtedly a complex issue, encompassing many individual factors. The first thing that may come to mind is the idea that the world is becoming "a smaller place" - both in terms of communication and also in the movement of physical objects, whether this means people or goods.
The global movement of people includes such trends as urbanisation. The changing global patterns in manufacturing of goods will alter not only where chemicals themselves might be made in the future, but also where the key markets are, as this will depend on the global manufacturing shifts in our key end-user industries.
During the Briefing, the audience was asked to give their opinion on what aspect of globalisation would have the greatest impact on their businesses. The results are shown below. It is clear from this that chemical companies primarily see globalisation trends as offering real growth opportunities for them.
The question that must follow from this is - what countries to look to for these growth opportunities? Some such as China and Russia are clearly important, but what about the next tier? This is something we are currently considering ourselves, and would value your opinions too. I personally will be watching countries such as Qatar, and the north African countries such as Morocco. They have great potential for growth.
At the beginning of 2009, I published a list of the top 10 megatrends that we felt would have an impact on the Performance Materials industry through 2009.
For 2010 however, we will be taking a different perspective on the key dynamics in our industry. This change is an exciting one as it will allow us to more closely track the trends in our key downstream markets, and ultimately to translate this more effectively into resultant impacts on chemicals demand.
In order to track these dynamics, our research teams will be divided into three focus groups. By tracking the most important dynamics in these three sectors through 2010, it will allow us to translate them quickly into actionable recommendations for the chemical industry.
Personal Well-being: how do chemicals contribute to trends in personal well-being requirements? This could involve new ingredients for personal care products, new high strength materials for PPE to wear at work, better polymers for medical devices and food packaging, and many other products besides.
Construction and Utilities: how are chemicals used to create a better built environment around us? They have a massive role to play in making our homes better insulated and therefore more energy efficient, and also in constructing the renewable energy infrastructure of the future, such as wind turbines, solar cells, and the harnessing of tidal energy. Even the supply of safe drinking water around the world is reliant on the chemicals industry, both for treatment chemicals and for plastics for a secure pipeline infrastructure.
Transportation: in addition to improving our own personal well-being, and creating the built environment around us, chemicals also have an important role to play in how everything moves around the world, from the construction of vehicles to fuelling and maintaining them. This applies to everything from passenger cars to public transportation and the tanker fleet that enables global trade. New chemicals and materials can make vehicles more fuel efficient, safe and durable, and also a nicer environment to be in.
Do you think that these three focus areas encompass all of the most dynamic markets for chemicals and materials? Do you have any thoughts on what the key trends are that will drive change in 2010 and beyond? If so, please let us know and contribute to the further enhancement of our strategic vision.
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