Decarbonization Progress on E-Cracking

Editor: Ahlam Rais

Decarbonizing basic chemicals — 4.6 million dollars in funding from the Dutch government will allow Dow, Shell and two new partners to push forward on their previous plans to develop steam crackers heated by electricity, for CO2-free production of ethylene.

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The joint e-cracking program can help to accelerate the decarbonization of chemical plants operated by Shell and Dow. Pictured: Shell Moerdijk, the Netherlands.
The joint e-cracking program can help to accelerate the decarbonization of chemical plants operated by Shell and Dow. Pictured: Shell Moerdijk, the Netherlands.
(Source: Shell)

A year after announcing ambitious plans to develop an “e-cracker”, Shell and Dow said in June that they had secured funding from the government of the Netherlands that will allow them to move forward with a multi-megawatt pilot plant. Start-up is currently scheduled for 2025.

The companies have also joined forces with two more sources of technological expertise: the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT).

Last year, the two consortium founders said they wanted to speed up progress towards steam crackers heated by electricity — ultimately supplied by carbon-free sources such as wind and solar — rather than fossil fuels. Steam crackers form the foundation of the petrochemical industry, turning ethane, propane, butane and naphtha into ethylene, butylene and other reactive unsaturated hydrocarbons.

The large amount of heat needed to drive the endothermic cracking reactions is normally supplied by burning natural gas or other hydrocarbons from the refinery. E-crackers with very low carbon dioxide emissions, coupled with an effective system for recycling plastics, could go a long way towards creating a climate-friendly petrochemicals industry.

In their latest announcement, Dow and Shell confirmed that they will receive 4.6 million dollars (3.5 million euros) under the MOOI (Mission-driven Research, Development and Innovation) subsidy scheme funded by the Dutch government through the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.

“Existing and New Crackers”

In the first year, Down and Shell say they have been working on electrification solutions for existing steam crackers as well as novel electrified crackers for the longer term. The dual-path approach supports the emissions reductions required to meet the companies’ 2030 CO2 ambitions as well as their net-zero target of 2050 or before.

Teams in the Netherlands and the USA have used their expertise in electrical engineering, metallurgy, hydrocarbon technology and computational fluid dynamics to narrow down concepts, validate emissions benefits, advance patents, demonstrate the durability of electric heating elements, and partner with equipment suppliers.

However, the partners are reluctant to reveal more details of either their e-cracker technology or what “electrification solutions for today’s steam crackers” might mean. A press release from ISPT suggests that the demonstration plant planned for 2025 will be based on existing crackers, and that the e-cracker pilot plant will have to wait until 2027. ISPT also points out that neither plant is included in the current project period.

Electric crackers enable key process routes for the circular economy.
Electric crackers enable key process routes for the circular economy.
(Source: Brightlands Chemelot Campus)

The project’s two new collaborators bring further expertise and a common commitment to a low-carbon future that will accelerate progress on the e-cracker, the founder members say.

TNO, an independent research organization with around 2600 employees, has deep knowledge of high-temperature heat transfer applications and plays a leading role in identifying innovative electrical technologies that could be deployed in the process industries.

ISPT describes itself as an active and open innovation platform for sustainable process technology, connecting stakeholders from industry, small companies, scientists and government bodies to create a circular and carbon-neutral process industry by 2050. It is a founder member of the Field Lab Industrial Electrification, a consortium that aims to show how the port of Rotterdam can benefit from greater use of electricity, and potentially green hydrogen too.

Germany’s Parallel Project

In the last issue of this magazine we reported how BASF, Sabic and Linde are working on a demonstration e-cracker at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site, for start-up as early as 2023. If that goes to plan, and subject to a supply of green electricity being available, BASF said the technology might be ready for commercialization by 2027.

PROCESS Worldwide previously estimated that a cracker yielding 1 million t/y of ethylene would need a furnace with a thermal rating in the range 170–315 MW. Extra power might also be required for compressors normally driven by steam turbines coupled to the furnace heat recovery system. BASF agrees that power supply will be critical for a full-scale e-cracker, in terms of both competitive renewable energy prices and expanded electric grids. Investment costs are likely to be higher than for a conventional cracker, especially in relation to the electricity infrastructure, BASF suggested.

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‘Cracker of the Future’ Consortium

Another group of companies have also joined the bandwagon. The European ‘Cracker of the Future’ consortium—comprising Borealis, BP, Total Energies, Repsol and Versalis (Eni)—has recently revealed that it will soon announce one of its game changing technologies for the electrification of the steam cracking process. Demonstration for the technology is currently being planned for 2023 and there is a good chance that commercial availability could be delivered by 2026.

European crackers predominantly operate on fossil-naphtha feedstock with some light feedstock such as LPG and ethane originating from refining of oil and from natural gas liquids. With electric crackers, they will also be able to convert bio naphtha and pyrolysis oil from waste plastics (chemical recycling) which will help to promote the circular economy and meet the goals of Europe’s Green Deal.