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The Story of Ethylene: Now Starring Natural Gas

It’s a $160 billion a year market you’ve probably never heard of.

Ethylene, the intermediary chemical compound from which popular plastics and many other high value products are derived, has traditionally been made in the petroleum industry via steam cracking, an energy- and carbon-intensive process. It’s the most produced organic compound in the world; annual global production is in the hundreds of millions of tons. To meet ever-increasing demand, production facilities are being added globally, particularly in the Persian Gulf and China.

The problem is, it’s complicated and expensive to make ethylene. And, or course, petroleum reserves are waning.

For decades, chemical engineers have been pursuing cost effective ways to make this key industrial compound from other things. Now, a handful of companies think they’re honing in on ways to make ethylene from the methane in natural gas with commercially viable processes.

If making ethylene from methane turns out to be possible at scale, it could be a watershed for the chemical and petroleum industries. Ethylene from methane could potentially be much less expensive, given that natural gas is one-fifth the price of oil. And its supply could be more sustainable, given the massive and growing size of natural gas reserves.

High value chemicals like ethylene from natural gas would be even more compelling if the gas was derived from renewable, biological sources, and not from conventional reserves or fracking, as today. Small volumes of renewable methane are available today from anaerobic digestion and landfill gas. But large volumes are promised by a new wave of companies commercializing thermal gasification and other approaches to creating bio natural gas from wood waste and other widely available feedstocks (see the Kachan report The Bio Natural Gas Opportunity).

Complicated science aside, it won’t be easy for companies to bring methane to ethylene innovations to scale. Ethylene and other high value chemicals today are an oligopoly, a market hard to crack. Any new process will likely need to be championed by one of today’s five big suppliers as a partner to enter the market. Then there’s the culture clash between small, fast-moving, venture-backed companies seeking quick exists and the notoriously slow, conservative petroleum and chemical industries.

But those challenges are likely surmountable, according to the bets that are being made by name-brand cleantech venture backers of the companies in this space.

Kachan & Co. recently performed a consulting project for a client that uncovered and profiled 24 announced and stealth mode startups in this space, along with 19 blue chip companies and 6 universities and government labs. You can find a list of some of the more interesting of the 24 small organizations we found at the forefront of methane-to-ethylene commercialization today here.

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is now managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver.

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