Electric steam cracker world-first in push to slash emissions by 90%

Article by Adam Duckett

Executives from BASF, Linde and SABIC inaugurate the new demonstration plant

BASF, SABIC and Linde have started operating a demonstration plant to prove that electrically heated steam cracking can significantly cut emissions from one of the chemical sector’s most energy intensive operations.

Steam crackers must be heated to temperatures of 850°C to break apart naphtha and form the olefins and aromatics that are used as building blocks in the manufacture of a vast array of chemicals including plastics, pharmaceuticals, and detergents. Until now, the furnaces in these steam crackers have been heated by burning fossil fuels. For the last three years, the partners have been engineering a cleaner approach – one that uses electricity from renewable power to heat the steam cracking operations.

On 17 April, leaders of the three companies started up the demonstration plant at BASF’s Ludwigshafen chemicals complex in Germany. The plant aims to show that electric heating can continuously produce olefins and that an industry under pressure to reduce its environmental impact can cut emissions from one of its foundational processes by 90%.

The demonstration is testing the use of two different electric heating approaches. In one furnace, direct heating applies an electric current directly to the cracking coils. In the second furnace, the current is applied to heating elements placed around the tubes with radiative heat transfer supplying the thermal energy needed to crack the feedstock passing inside.

The plant is fully integrated into the existing crackers at the site. Between them the two electrically heated furnaces process around 4 t/h of hydrocarbon feedstock and consume 6 MW of renewable energy.

Jürgen Nowicki, CEO of Linde Engineering, said: “The question of whether it is possible to electrify the petrochemical industry and operate a steam cracker with sustainably generated electricity has been answered with a resounding yes.”

Despite his bullishness, there are a lot of questions left unanswered. The partners are not certain how long the demonstration project will need to operate for, noting it’s not unusual for such a plant to run for a period of two to three years to help engineers gather all the information they need. Similarly, the schedule for commercialisation will depend on numerous factors, most crucial being the availability of renewable energy at competitive prices.
Linde has been responsible for engineering, procurement, and construction of the plant. If the demonstration proves successful it will commercialise the technology under the name STARBRIDGE and sell it to other petrochemical firms.

This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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