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Big petrochemical project may come to the Gulf Coast

Engineering firm KBR says it has signed a contract for a large new plant

by Alexander H. Tullo
March 31, 2022

KBR's Houston headquarters.
Credit: KBR
KBR's Houston headquarters

The US Gulf Coast may be getting a massive new petrochemical complex.

The engineering firm KBR says it has signed an agreement to license its catalytic olefin and steam cracking technologies to an unnamed “leading midstream company” that will use them to build a large facility.

Midstream companies provide services to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries like operating pipelines, terminals, and storage facilities. They also fractionate chemical feedstocks such as ethane from natural gas streams. Most don’t involve themselves directly in chemical production.

KBR, one of the world’s largest petrochemical technology providers, says the facility will have 2.4 million metric tons (t) per year of light olefin capacity. That could make it larger than Dow’s new ethylene cracker in Freeport, Texas, which weighs in at 2 million t of capacity after a recent expansion and is billed as the largest facility of its kind in the world.

KBR’s K-COT catalytic olefin technology, which the company first put into commercial operation in 2006, adds another twist to the project. According to a recent KBR presentation, K-COT is a fluidized catalytic cracking process—similar to that found in an oil refinery—and uses a modified ZSM-5 catalyst. The process typically takes in hydrocarbon feedstocks with between 4 and 10 carbons and turns out products such as ethylene, propylene, and aromatics.

“The yields are dramatically different depending on the mix of feeds,” says Steve Lewandowski, vice president of olefins for the research firm IHS Markit. He notes, for instance, that the ratio of propylene to ethylene can range from 2:1 to 1:1. A typical refinery fluidized catalytic cracker emphasizes propylene, while an ethylene cracker overwhelmingly produces ethylene.

A few midstream firms have the financial heft and inclination to take on such a sizable petrochemical project, Lewandowski says. One is Enterprise Products Partners, which operates an ethylene pipeline and storage system on the Gulf Coast. Enterprise completed a propane dehydrogenation facility in Mont Belvieu, Texas, in 2018, and is planning another such unit for 2023. Another candidate is Energy Transfer Partners, which operates a pipeline system that takes ethane from Western Pennsylvania to a marine terminal near Philadelphia and to Ontario.

KBR’s announcement didn’t mention making olefin derivatives such as polyethylene or polypropylene. Lewandowski says it is likely that chemical industry partners would sign agreements to take output from the facility, as they have done for other olefin projects. For instance, LyondellBasell Industries agreed to take some of the propylene from Enterprise’s new dehydrogenation plant.



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