Can Something Akin to a Kitchen Toaster Save the Cracker?

BASF has joined with SABIC and industrial gas supplier Linde to try and overcome one of the chemical industry’s main obstacles to cleaning up its act.

The three groups are looking to develop the technology to electrify steam crackers converting straight run gasoline into chemical components for everything from plastics to pesticides and vitamins. With furnaces burning 24/7 at 850 Celsius, using energy from wind farms instead of burning natural gas could save up to 90% of CO2 emissions.

Photo: Cracker 1 at Ludwigshafen, born 1965. Source BASF.

The beating heart of any large chemical complex is the cracker: typically a tangle of pipes, steel and furnaces burning day and night. As any visitor to BASF’s flagship site in Ludwigshafen will attest, it’s the No. 1 tourist attraction when doing a circuit of the 10,000 square-meter site. But from an environmental perspective, they rank poorly.

“Cracking furnaces are one of the largest CO2 emission sources in the whole petrochemical value chain,” Juergen Nowicki, an EVP at Linde. “This is a time-tested, optimized technology that we are now putting on a completely new footing, not in the laboratory, but on a large industrial scale.”

Foes Turn Friends

BASF’s partner is SABIC, a stiff competitor in some plastics and chemical markets where the slightest of cost advantages can be make or break on a contract. The Saudi state-owned company was born in the desert in 1976, the product of a royal decree to capture oil by-products and convert them into useful chemicals.

Linde brings its engineering know-how building steam crackers. All three companies share a need to find ways of cutting emissions as regulations tighten up.

All this will come at a cost, so far undisclosed. The three partners have applied for funding from the European Union and Germany as they hone plans for a multi-megawatt demonstration plant that will sit alongside the traditional ovens at Ludwigshafen. Start-up could be as early as 2023, if the grants come through.

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