From Natural Gas to Plastic Wrap

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Plastic Wrap and Why You Should Care Where It Comes From

The other night I was getting steak out of the fridge to season and grill when my daughter asked me what the plastic wrap was made of. I thought, how far do I go back in my explanation – Polyethylene, ethylene, ethane/naphtha, natural gas liquids? She’s seven, so it didn’t warrant that level of explanation (thankfully). But it got me thinking about how often we use everyday products not thinking of where they come from or how they’re made.

Plastic wrap, most notably derived from low density polyethylene (LPDE), is one of many ethylene consumer end products. Because of its diverse range of end-uses, ethylene is one of the world’s largest volume petrochemicals. Its demand is sensitive to both economic and energy cycles, and so it is often seen as a barometer to the performance of the petrochemical industry as whole.

From Natural Gas to Plastic Wrap

The commodities ethylene market is huge with a global capacity of 150M tons [2016], a worth greater than $156B [2013], and with an expected compound annual growth rate of more than 11% between now and 2025. But despite this aggressive growth, the ethylene market is both cost-driven and extremely price sensitive; ethylene prices peaked nine months ago and have yet to return to their highs. Energy and feedstocks make up 60 – 70% of the costs of chemical production. And while commercial ethylene production has been around for more than 50 years, alternate feedstocks – shale gas in North America and coal in China—are changing the competitive landscape.

Remaining competitive means being current in the latest technology. It is achieved by using advanced technology to increase production, lower energy and feedstock costs, and improve efficiency (inherent to the process and to the people). At the same time, you must address rapidly changing economics, a retiring workforce, and operating a highly integrated plant. A rigorous process model of an ethylene plant involves 33+ distinct process unit areas.

In addition to lowering capital and operating costs, effectively engineering an ethylene plant can produce safer designs and optimized operations, help identify ways to improve utilization, product quality and plant yield, and empower operators to make better, more informed decisions. You can expect this technology to:

  • Successfully study profit (in the design phase) for large capacity olefins plants that have frequent feed changes, high energy consumption, and various modes of operation; with savings up to $9M/year
  • Facilitate the modeling, verification of plant data, and testing of new control schemes; and then train the entire control room crew on the new scheme
  • Improve plant profitability by $4 – 12 per ton of ethylene, even with a modest increase (0.5 – 1%) in ethylene production
  • Maximize feed rate, ethylene and/or propylene production rates, and minimize utility cost, improving profitability by more than $2M/year

If you’re interested in learning more, including case studies reflecting these benefits, Schneider Electric is conducting a webinar entitled “Using Simulation Studies to Optimize Your Ethylene Plant” on June 6, 2017 at 10 am CDT. Register Now.

And if your kids ask you the same kind of questions, has a really neat flowchart on their website. It shows all the derivatives of crude oil and natural gas in relation to end user consumer products. I have it on my home office wall just for these types of inquisitive questions!

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