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Mix of Raw Materials Is the End in Sight for the Steamcracker?

Editor: Anke Geipel-Kern

Crude oil, coal, natural gas and biomass — discussions about the future mix of raw materials in the chemical industry has only just begun. PROCESS has compiled the key findings for you.

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Steamcracker II is the biggest individual plant on the Ludwigshafen site and the heart of BASF’s networked production. Although discussions about alternatives to naphtha are currently under way in the industry, oil is set to remain the single most important raw material for the chemical industry for many years to come. (Picture: BASF)
Steamcracker II is the biggest individual plant on the Ludwigshafen site and the heart of BASF’s networked production. Although discussions about alternatives to naphtha are currently under way in the industry, oil is set to remain the single most important raw material for the chemical industry for many years to come. (Picture: BASF)

The steamcracker’s excess gas burner was extinguished during the economic crisis, so when it was re-lit last autumn at the BASF site the symbolism of the moment was inescapable. After all, these two towers represent the cradle of almost all of the chemicals which are manufactured by BASF, and are therefore the heart of the network. Since the company was originally founded as the Badische Anilin- und Sodafabriken, crude oil and naphtha have evolved into the single most important raw material in the value creation chain of the chemical industry — not just for BASF, but for the industry as a whole. However, the price of crude oil keeps going up, and for many years the chemical industry has found itself in competition with larger clients in for example the fuel and energy industries. Consequently, alternatives are needed in the medium to long term in order to free the industry from this dependency on oil. No surprise then to hear Hans-Jürgen Wernicke, Deputy CEO of Süd-Chemie, declare that “now is the right time to address the topic of a shift in raw materials“.

Which is the right raw material?

There are several reasons why we should cast a critical eye on the value creation chains of the 200 “immortal” chemicals. The costs of raw materials currently place a burden on companies which is equivalent to 30% of the gross value of production. Even optimists don’t believe that this proportion will ever go back down again. “The jump-off point (for crude oil — editor’s note) is currently at 40 dollars per barrel,“ calculates Wernicke. He believes that prices will never drop below this level again.

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