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The unwanted fertilizer

Summary

Ammonium sulphate has suffered a long, slow decline from the days when it was the most popular nitrogen fertilizer in the developed world. However, growing sulphur deficiencies in fields have led to a revival of interest in some quarters in recent years. Nevertheless, it remains predominantly regarded as a byproduct of other processes. Nitrogen & Methanol reviews the production methods of this sometimes overlooked fertilizer.

Abstract

Ammonium sulphate (AS) is one of the oldest fertilizers. It was first produced on an industrial scale as a by-product from coke ovens and gasworks in the 19th century in the countries of the industrialised world. Its ready availability meant that it became favoured as a fertilizer, and it once formed the major source of nitrogen fertilizer in the developed world.

The discovery of the synthesis of ammonia in the early years of the 20th century meant that synthetic ammonium sulphate could be produced from ammonia and sulphuric acid, and this route gradually came to dominate the ammonium sulphate industry. By the 1960s, two thirds of all ammonium sulphate production was through such ‘voluntary’ synthesis. However, the growth in synthetic fibres, especially nylon-6, has led to a third route for the production of ammonium sulphate; as a co-product from the production of synthetic fibre intermediates, in particular caprolactam and methyl methacrylate.

There are currently five major routes for the production of ammonium sulphate: from coke ovens as has happened for over a century; as a by-product of caprolactam production; as a by-product of methyl methacrylate production, by direct synthesis from ammonia and sulphuric acid; and from sulphur oxide-rich tail gas that is treated with ammonia. By the 1980s, the rapid growth of synthetic fibre production had seen ‘voluntary’ ammonium sulphate synthesis fall to 47% of overall production, with co-production growing to 33%, and coke and gas by-product relatively stable at 20%. By the end of the 20th century, ‘voluntary’ production of AS had fallen to only 10% of the market. However, as Figure 1 shows; world production of ammonium sulphate has been virtually static over the past 20 years, at a time when urea production has more than tripled.

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Is the carnival over for Latin America?

Summary

In spite of Brazil's World Cup victory, dark clouds have gathered over Latin America's prospects. Nitrogen & Methanol takes a look at a region which had been one of the main growth areas for new nitrogen capacity.

Abstract

Following the oil crisis of 1973, Latin America, which up until then had been one of the most dynamic, fast-growing parts of the world economy, slumped into a decade of crisis and debt, and rule by military strongmen backed by the army. The debt crisis had a long overhang, and burdened these economies throughout the 1980s, during often tortuous renegotiations and write-offs. However, in the 1990s South America once again became a ‘hot ticket’, especially when other emerging regions, like the former Soviet Union and eventually even the ‘Asian Tigers’, proved not to be the great opportunities that they had been thought. Democratic governments were elected across the continent and the military went back to barracks. It seemed that political and economic stability had been restored across the continent and it could become a centre of world growth once more. In spite of the remaining widespread problem of corruption, the boom times were definitely here for Latin America.

However, the past year has seen problems begin to accelerate throughout the region. Argentina has been forced to abandon its dollar currency peg (after a period when it had been seriously considering adopting the US dollar as the nation’s official currency to try and offset problems in the banking sector). The economy has since imploded and there seems little way out at present. In Venezuela, two coups and falling oil prices have rocked the country, Colombia has returned to civil war, and even Brazil’s recovery is starting to look shaky.

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Mega-ammonia round-up

Summary

The main ammonia plant contractors are all offering large plant concepts for from 3,000 t/d to an astonishing 6,000 t/d. That represents the biggest proportionate leap in capacity since the introduction of the integrated single-train ammonia plant concept in the 1960s. Will the industry be convinced this time round?

Abstract

Ammonia plants have changed relatively little over the last 40 years. They have just got progressively bigger, safer, cleaner and more efficient. But one thing has changed very markedly. The centre of gravity of the industry has moved away from the traditional industrial world (North America and Europe, as costs there have escalated and markets have atrophied) to a relatively small number of locations which have cheap natural gas and labour and ready access to deep water ports for export, especially the Middle East and the Caribbean. Developing countries which formerly bought fertilizers from industrial world producers are now either making them themselves or getting them from these low-cost producers, directly or through traders.

 On the market there is no longer the scramble for new nitrogen that provided the huge boost that launched the large-scale single-train process concept in the 1960s. And now that the industry is already very largely located in the lowest-cost areas, about the only way that new capacity can become significantly more competitive is by exploiting economies of scale.

The trouble is, the scale of contemporary projects is already massive. Ammonia plants now being built are breaking the 2,000-t/d barrier. To have any worth-while unit cost advantage over these plants, it will be necessary to up the capacity to 3,000 t/d or more. The industry has been asking its process suppliers about that. But in view of the magnitude of the investment entailed in these projects, both the industry and its financiers are likely to be much more canny about committing to any technology that is not familiar and proved. The industry is today much less receptive to sudden change than it was in the 1960s.

The vendors of large ammonia plants are only too well aware of the industry’s reservations. The “Big Three” – Haldor Topsøe, Halli­burton KBR, and Uhde – all offer schemes allegedly comprising only tried and tested unit processes and equipment. A fourth, Lurgi, which is in the forefront of “mega-methanol” technology but is rather less well known in the ammonia field, is also working on some sort of “mega-ammonia” scheme but is not prepared to release any details for publication at the moment, so we cannot say any more about it here.

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Full house at Uhde's Symposium

Summary

Uhde GmbH yes, it's officially called that again had a large audience at its quadrennial showcase in Dortmund in June.

Abstract

Just when we had all got used to the “new” name, Krupp Uhde has now changed back to its previous name, Uhde GmbH. Before an audience of 150, drawn from Uhde’s customers, suppliers, consultants and other privileged guests, in the conference room of the company’s head office in Dortmund at the opening of the 2002 Uhde Fertiliser Symposium, Dr Detlev Claes, Head of the Fertiliser Division, also reaffirmed that Uhde will definitely remain part of the ThyssenKrupp Group, ending some months of doubt about its future ownership. To be precise, Uhde is part of the “Plant Technologies” sub-branch of Thys­senKrupp Technologies, which also includes Polysius (ex Krupp Polysius), ThyssenKrupp Förder­tech­nik and ThyssenKrupp EnCoke. ThyssenKrupp EnCoke comprises the devolved coke oven gas engineering capabilities of the former Krupp Koppers, which was merged into Krupp Uhde in 1996, combined with those of the former Thyssen group. Simple, really.

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