The start-up of the experimental unit is a major milestone in Shell and Dow’s joint ‘E Cracker’ technology programme to electrify steam crackers.
Steam crackers are huge installations in which naphtha is ‘cracked’ via heating (to above 800 degrees Celsius) and cooling into basic raw materials for the chemical industry, such as ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene. It is a very energy-intensive process that consumes a lot of natural gas.
In the coming year, Shell and Dow will use the experimental unit to test a theoretical electrification model. The next phase is the design and construction of a multi-megawatt pilot plant, scheduled to start up in 2025.
Shell and Dow are collaborating in the E-Cracker programme with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT) and received a €3.5 million grant from the Dutch government’s MOOI programme last year.
Apart from Shell and Dow, SABIC also has steam crackers in the Netherlands. That company is currently working with BASF and Linde to make them more sustainable. They have plans to realise a multi-megawatt pilot plant with this technology as early as 2023 at the BASF site in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
A third initiative, the European consortium ‘Crackers of the Future’, comprising Borealis, BP, Total Energies, Repsol and Versalis (Eni) announced that their electric cracking technology will be commercially available by 2026.
Using renewable electricity to heat steam cracking furnaces is one route to decarbonising the chemical industry. Compared to conventional cracking furnaces, e-cracking furnaces fuelled by renewable electricity can reduce direct emissions by up to 90%, at an economically competitive cost. They also make it possible to convert bio-naphtha and pyrolysis oil from waste plastics (chemical recycling) in addition to fossil naphtha, which is a major step forward in the circular economy and the objectives of Europe’s Green Deal.