USA/Saudi Arabia: Ethylene to Crude Oil Petrochemicals Without Refining? New Process Allows the Production of Ethylene Directly from Crude

Editor: Dominik Stephan

Bye-bye, naphtha cracker: A new steam cracking process allows petrochemical producers to skip the refining stage in the production of ethylene – with potential cost benefits of hundreds of dollars per ton.

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Exxon Mobil's Singapore chemicals plant, a favorable location for the new oil to chemicals process, thanks to ist access to light and sweet crudes.
Exxon Mobil's Singapore chemicals plant, a favorable location for the new oil to chemicals process, thanks to ist access to light and sweet crudes.
(Picture: Exxon Mobil)

Houston, Texas USA– Two new steam-cracking processes developed by Exxon Mobil and Saudi Aramco, respectively, allow petrochemical producers to essentially skip the refining process in converting crude oil directly to light olefins. These new processes could potentially save refiners as much as $200-per-ton of ethylene produced, according to a comprehensive engineering analysis conducted by IHS (NYSE: IHS), the leading global source of critical information and insight.

“In 2014, Exxon Mobil commissioned a world-scale facility in Singapore that produces 1 million tons per year of ethylene directly from crude oil,” said Anthony Pavone, director of engineering at IHS Chemical. “We at IHS Chemical believe this process nets Exxon Mobil about $100 to $200 per metric ton above traditional naphtha cracking.”

“This new crude-to-olefins process is about production cost savings, and takes advantage of the premium that naphtha commands over crude oil in Southeast Asia. It is this ‘feedstock spread’ that contributes most of the cost-savings advantage,” Pavone said.

Crude to Olefins: How the Saudis enter the Next Petro-Level

The Exxon Mobil process completely bypasses the traditional naphtha cracking process. Saudi Aramco has its own process for crude oil to olefins, and in June 2016, Aramco announced a joint venture with Sabic to study building a ‘crude oil-to-chemicals’ complex in Saudi Arabia. Though the exact process configuration for the potential joint-venture was not disclosed, it is possible this complex will employ the Aramco process, at least in part.

According to the IHS report, the Exxon Mobil process completely bypasses the refinery and feeds crude oil to the cracking furnaces. These have each been modified to include a flash pot between the convective and radiant sections of the furnaces. Next, the crude oil is pre-heated and then flashed, IHS said, essentially ‘topping’ the lighter components from the crude.

Favorable Locations: Light and Sweet Crude Required

This extracted vapor, the IHS report said, is then fed back into the furnace’s radiant coils and cracked in the usual fashion. The heavier liquid that collects at the bottom of the flash pot is either transferred to the adjacent Exxon Mobil refinery, or sold into the merchant market.

“This analysis was conducted at a $50 per barrel cost for crude oil,” Pavone said. “As you might expect for Singapore, this process requires the local availability of light, sweet crude.”

Although the Aramco process differs from Exxon’s approach, they share a common aim… more on page 2!