In a step toward making the petrochemical industry less carbon intensive, BASF, Sabic, and Linde have embarked on the world’s first large-scale demonstration of an electrically heated steam cracker.
Conventional ethylene crackers use fossil fuels, typically natural gas, to heat furnaces to the temperature required—about 850 °C—to crack feedstocks like naphtha into ethylene, propylene, and other basic petrochemicals. The process is energy intensive, generating about 260 million metric tons (t) of carbon dioxide emissions per year globally, nearly 1% of the world’s carbon footprint.
The demonstration unit, to start up next year at BASF’s flagship complex in Ludwigshafen, Germany, will use 6 MW of renewable electricity to produce the heat needed to process 4 t of hydrocarbons per hour. The companies claim that an electrified system could reduce CO2 emissions by at least 90% versus conventional cracking.
BASF will operate the facility. Linde, an engineering firm, will commercialize technologies resulting from the endeavor. The German government is supporting the project with a $15 million grant.
“This project holds huge potential for all the petrochemical industry around the world in our drive for low carbon emitting processes,” Sabic CEO Yousef Al-Benyan says in an announcement.
The firms will test two methods of supplying heat to the reactor: one will run current directly through process tubes, while the other will use radiative heating elements placed around the tubes.
BASF, Sabic, and Linde aren’t the only big chemical names trying to electrify cracking. In June, Dow and Shell started up a small unit in Amsterdam to test an electric cracker system that they hope to be able to retrofit on existing crackers.
Chris Dziedziak, sales and project manager for the Catalyst Group, a technology consulting firm, cautions that beyond proving the technical feasibility of electrified cracking systems lies the expense of renewable electricity. “In terms of the long-term economic feasibility of this, those costs have to come down,” he says.