The Chemical Process Industry is making a concerted effort to find an alternative to oil. Natural gas, coal and biomass are all potential sources of basic chemicals, and syngas production can make a bigger contribution than it has so far.
The reaction of a time traveler from the early days of the Chemical Process Industry (CPI) to the current renaissance of syngas production might well be a feeling of déjà vu. Process engineers and scientists in Europe are working on gasification technologies for converting wood, plant residue or bio-waste into a reactive mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide for the production of either fuel or basic chemicals. Integrated chemical complexes are being built in China to gasify coal for subsequent conversion to propylene and ethylene. Despite the differences, the Fischer-Tropsch process, the Megamethanol process and oxo-synthesis all have one thing in common: syngas production always plays a key role. That is good news for large engineering contractors. Major players that have the right technology and the capability to take on large-scale EPC projects are e.g. Linde, the Air Liquide subsidiary Lurgi, Uhde as well as Technip, Matthei Johnson and Kellogg. All of them are busy at the moment. Linde is building a gasification plant in South Korea with a capacity of 500,000 metric tons, which is expected to go online in 2013. Lurgi has taken its Megamethanol technology to China, where it is working in partnership with Shenhua Ninxia and Datang Duolon (470,000 t/a of propylene each). Uhde has just received the go-ahead to use its Prenflow biomass gasification process in collaboration with five French partners on the French BioTfueL Project.
Syngas Technology: Greetings From The Past
If you put the history of chemical production on a timeline, you will see that syngas plants are dinosaurs from the early days of the CPI when olefins such as propylene and ethylene were produced from coal. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1950s when the first large oil fields were developed that oil became cheaper than any alternative, the reserves appeared to be inexhaustible and oil provided a far wider range of basic chemicals than syngas or coke. Syngas has continued to play a role in the production of methanol, ammonia and hydrogen, but since oil became dominant propylene and ethylene have been produced in crackers.
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