World-first electric steam cracker demo starts operations in push to slash emissions by 90%

Article by Adam Duckett

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.

Demo starts testing two technologies

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.

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

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.

Martin Brudermüller, BASF chairman, said: “The demonstration plant here in Ludwigshafen will provide us with valuable experience on the final step towards the industrial application of this technology.”

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, a BASF spokesperson said.

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.

Other electrifying efforts

Among the other chemicals majors who have signalled efforts to electrify the steam cracking process are Shell and Dow who announced in 2022 that they had started testing their own experimental e-cracking furnace. The partners said data from the unit would be used to design and construct a multi-megawatt pilot plant that could be operational as early as 2025. When contacted by TCE, a Shell spokesperson declined to provide an update on the status of the project.

Meanwhile, an entirely different route for electrifying the cracking process – one that doesn’t rely on furnaces – is being pursued by Coolbrook. The company is using electric motors to rotate blades to generate heat in the feedstock and crack it. In January, it said it had successfully used its Rotodynamic Reactor technology to crack naphtha in a large-scale pilot plant in the Netherlands. Linde is also a partner of Coolbrook and plans to integrate its technology into new plants.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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