Boosting Global Expansion
Shell Chemicals Aims to Achieve Growth with Help of its Own Process Technologies and Integrated Sites
Business - Shell Chemicals held a ground-breaking ceremony last month for the building of facilities for making high-purity ethylene oxide (HPEO) and ethoxylates at its site in Singapore, part of its global network of regional hubs.
The event exemplified the current direction being taken by the chemicals arm of the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas giant in a programme of major expansions in Asia and North America but without any big alteration to the strategy it has been following for several years.
"Our strategy in chemicals is unchanged but our level of aspiration is increasing," Graham van't Hoff, executive vice-president of Shell Chemicals, said at a recent press briefing in London. "We are looking to grow the business significantly over time."
The ground-breaking was for a high-purity ethylene oxide (HPEO) purification column with an initial capacity of 140,000 tonnes a year and two world-scale ethoxylation units with a combined capacity of 140,000 tonnes per year.
Like with other expansion schemes of Shell Chemicals, which in 2011 had sales of $47 billion from an output of 18.8 million tonnes, the new units are being constructed on a highly integrated site close to a refinery and/or sources of advantaged feedstocks.
Also, they will be part of a value chain in which the business is already well established at the bulk end across the world and in which it has leading proprietary process technologies. Shell has been for over 50 years a leader in ethylene oxide, from which HPEO is derived, and in ethoxylates.
In addition, like with other projects, the products are being targeted at fast growing regional markets auch as those for detergents and personal care items markets such as but also ones which support sustainability by encouraging greater energy efficiency.
"The demand for alcohol ethoxylates in Asia is expected to increase at approximately 6-7% annually over the next few years," said Graham van't Hoff in Singapore. "The key driver for this is the move by consumers from laundry powders and soap bars to liquid detergent and liquid soaps."
The alcohol ethoxylates which are made through the processing of HPEO with alcohol, have formulation advantages in the rapidly expanding liquid detergents sector in Asia. Concentrated liquid detergents work more effectively at lower wash temperatures and they do not leave residues.
The Singapore complex, in which Shell is debottlenecking its ethylene cracker to increase capacity for olefins and aromatics by 20%, is one among a number of Shell sites in which the company is planning to expand output of ethylene oxide/ethylene glycol and their derivatives, including HPEO and ethoxylates.
At Geismar, Louisiana, in the US where Shell has one of the world's largest EO and ethoxylation facilities, the company is consid
ering large-scale debottlenecking of EO assets so that it can make more use of its HPEO and glycol infrastructure on the site.
At Moerdijk in the Netherlands-another of Shell's major regional hubs - Shell's investment plans include a debottlenecking of crude EO capacity and the building of a new HPEO purification column.
In EO and its derivatives Shell has the competitive benefits of its own OMEGA process technology which is the world's first entirely catalytic process for producing EO/EG. For making mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) from EO it achieves a conversion efficiency of over 99%, compared with around 90% for conventional processes.
Another product area in which Shell is rapidly expanding is polyols, which are reacted with isocyanates in the manufacture of polyurethanes. This is an example of another material which supports sustainability in end-use sectors like insulation of building and the making of low-weight components for automobiles to help reduce fuel consumption.
It is also another segment in which Shell has proprietary technologies, including its styrene monomer/ propylene oxide (SMPO) process. Propylene is a key intermediate for the making of polyols.
In Singapore Shell is increasing its polyols production by over 100,000 tonnes a year to add new grades to its Asian polyols portfolio by 2014.
In the Middle East, where Shell is expecting a fivefold rise in demand for polyurethanes as the region catches up with per-capita consumption levels in Europe, the company is aiming through Saudi Petrochemical Co (Sadaf), its joint venture with SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corp.), to produce a full range of polyols. Propylene oxide would be supplied by an SMPO plant at the venture's site at Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia.
At Pernis in the Netherlands capacity production capacity is being increased for propylene-oxide based polyol grades for application in coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers (CASE).
Raw materials for polycarbonates, another energy-saving and strongly growing polymer, are another target for expansion. Shell, which is already a major supplier of aromatics like cumene. phenol and acetone for polycarbonate production, has been developing a new process for making the intermediate diphenyl carbonate (DPC) which enables polycarbonate to be produced without the use of highly toxic phosgene.
The technology, which will be demonstrated at a 500 tonne-a-year unit at the Singapore site, is based on a multi-stage reaction involving carbon dioxide, phenol and either propylene or ethylene oxide with catalysts which achieve 99-percent selectivity.
The development of the DPC process reflects Shell's renewed optimism in the future of the C6 aromatics chain. It believes demand for its aromatic chemicals, especially benzene, will be helped by the global drive for sustainability because of their ability to reduce energy demand and emissions and help conserve food and water.
One of Shell's biggest scheme still in the feasibility stage is a world-scale ethylene cracker at Monaca, Pennsylvania, whose main derivative will be polyethylene. This is a product in which Shell has no market presence except through a joint venture with Chinese National Offshore Oil Co (CNOOC) at Nanhai, China, which has 500,000 tons a year of low and high density polyethylene capacity.
Otherwise Shell got out of the polyethylene sector when Basell, its global polymers joint venture was BASF, was sold to the investment company Access Industries in 2005.
The attraction of having a cracker in Pennsylvania is that it will be close to one of the world's biggest concentration of polyethylene converters in Northeast US and is also located on top of the Marcellus shale gas reservoir, the biggest in the country. This ensures a supply of low-cost gas liquids feedstocks. "The US cracker complex is under evaluation," said Graham van't Hoff. "We are not committed to anything at this stage. We've said that the production of polyethylene is part of that evaluation. There is a key question of where the polyethylene technology would come from - whether by buying it off the shelf or doing something ourselves."
Shell has a number of joint venture schemes being planned or in the early construction phase which will be using some or most of its major process technologies to produce core products in its portfolio.
In Qatar, the engineering company Fluor has recently been awarded the front-end engineering design contract for a new petrochemicals complex to be jointly owned by Qatar Petroleum and Shell. Its output will include MEG using the OMEGA process and linear alpha olefins applying the Shell Higher Olefin Process (SHOP). With Qatar Petroleum International (QPI), Shell is working with PetroChina on the development of an integrated refinery and petrochemicals complex in Shanghai.
Shell is not revealing what its target for growth is in chemicals. But at the Singapore ground-breaking ceremony Mr. van't Hoff did cite a prediction that petrochemicals global demand in 2030 would be double that in 2010. It seems likely that Shell will achieve a similar increase in its sales by that time.
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