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Petrochemicals from oil, natural gas, Ccoal and biomass: energy use, economics and innovation

By T. Ren


The petrochemical industry is faced with the dual challenges of climate change and the security of energy supply. To deal with these challenges, it is necessary to identify technologies for the production of basic petrochemicals that could potentially improve energy efficiency and/or utilizing alternative primary energy sources, e.g. coal and biomass. This thesis explores the potential of novel process technologies. In total, 24 technological routes were studied and three aspects are analyzed: environment, economics and innovation. Regarding the environmental aspects, three conventional routes (i.e. utilizing naphtha and heavy feedstocks derived from crude oil and ethane derived from natural gas) are the most energy-efficient routes among all 24 routes studied. The total energy use of methane-based routes is 30% higher and that of coal and biomass-based routes is about 60-150% higher than that of the conventional routes. The total CO2 emissions of conventional and methane-based routes are similar. The total CO2 emissions of coal-based routes are by far the highest, with an exception of a coal-based route with CO2 capture and sequestration whose CO2 emissions are similar to those of the conventional routes. Biomass-based routes can avoid CO2 emissions due to biomass-based electricity cogeneration and the use of biomass-derived energy. Regarding the economic aspects, we performed an economic analysis of 24 routes using expected energy prices for the period of 2030-2050 found in the public literature. The costs of crude oil and natural gas-based routes are clearly higher than those of coal and biomass-based routes by $100-500 per ton light olefin value equivalent products. Production costs of coal and biomass-based routes are rather similar to each other. The effect of CO2 emissions costs (in the range of $0-100 per ton CO2) was tested and was found to be strong on the coal-based routes and also quite significant on the biomass-based routes. The effect on other routes was found to be relatively small or moderate. Regarding the innovation aspects, a number of drivers and barriers to energy efficiency improvement and innovation in basic petrochemical processes were identified. For improving existing processes (conventional routes), the main drivers are energy cost savings, tight supply of gas feedstocks and personal commitment of individuals. The main barriers are staff and time shortages, competition from other prioritized projects and existing process configurations. For developing new processes (alternative routes), the main drivers are the use of low-cost feedstocks (derived from alternative primary energy sources) for producing high-value chemicals, competition among firms and the wish to broaden the application of existing knowledge. The main barriers are unfavorable economic situations, insufficient modeling tools and concerns for job security. The thesis concluded that the innovative technologies discussed in this thesis have the technical and economic potential for the petrochemical industry to deal with climate change and the security of energy supply, but there are complex drivers and barriers related to energy efficiency and technological innovations. Policies are needed to ensure alternative energy sources, such as coal or biomass, will be utilized in an environmentally sound and socially responsible way

Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2009
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