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High-octane demand

Summary

In the refining industry, the emphasis of late has been on ever-increasing production of sulphur. Now another instance of environmental pressure may boost demand for sulphuric acid inside inside the refinery gate. Chris Cunningham weighs up the issues surrounding octane boosters in the US.

Abstract

When Governor Gray Davis of California announced last year the date for a state-wide ban on America’s favourite gasoline additive, the refining industry was able immediately to turn its attention to a longer-established alternative to keep octane ratings up.

With the possible expansion of alkylate production (see Box 1), there would even be the prospect of suddenly increasing demand for sulphuric acid among some of the world’s leading producers of sulphur.

The object of the governor’s wrath is methyl tertiary buyl ether (MTBE), an octane-boosting additive for gasoline which has been leaking from storage and serving an extra purpose as a an additive to Californian water. First introduced in 1979 at selected refineries, MTBE reached the peak of its popularity at the beginning of the 1990s when its clean-burning properties matched the new oxygen requirement added to the reformulated gasoline (RFG) programme (see Box 1 for background).

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According to plan

Summary

China's emergence as a leading importer of brimstone has been a surprise to most. However, years of persuasive effort by exporting organisations and the emergence of the ­government's Ninth Five-Year Plan delivered natural conditions for a brimstone boom. Gerry Sears, Marketing Director of Canadian export consortium PRISM Sulphur Corporation, outlines the background and potential of a special sulphur market.

Abstract

After several years of earnest marketing effort by foreign com­panies among China’s sulphuric acid manufacturers, it is clear that sulphur purchases from abroad have achieved a structural permanence in Chinese economic activity. A soaring rate of national industrial growth through­out the 1990s resulting in higher demand for sulphuric acid as a process chemical, combined with an acute need for enhanced agricultural production in which high-analysis phos­phate fertilizers will play an important role, has led China’s central government to conclude that sulphur is a strategic raw material essential to fulfilling the nation’s current economic goals and future ambitions.

Simultaneously, Japanese and Can­adian sulphur producers have reaped the benefits of Beijing’s new-found at­tention to sulphur’s importance. Hav­ing hunted for a major new outlet for their production in the face of continuing surplus throughout most of the past decade, and confronted with the prospect of impending new supplies from virtually every corner of the globe, the producers’ consensus is that the China sulphur boom was perfectly timed. The business thus entered into between a small but influential group of foreign exporters and a willing multitude of Chinese buyers has proved a good match, with each side needing and welcoming the other in equal measure.

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New technologies for low-sulphur motor fuels

Summary

At a time when oil refineries are facing the use of progressively more sour crudes, and are under continuing pressure to make profits, new legislation requires the removal of ­sulphur from motor fuels to unprecedented low levels, that just a few years ago would have seemed implausible. Sulphur looks at the ways and means by which this will be achieved.

Abstract

Political moves to reduce the sulphur content of motor fuels are now advancing apace throughout the developed world. Current legislation and targets for the future appear far tighter now than they did even a year ago, and it is clear that both gasoline and diesel fuel will be affected. With the availability of sweet crude becoming more and more limited, and with motor fuels increasingly important to profit margins, refiners are effectively being squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Critical challenges are being faced by refiners, in North America, Europe and Asia, to produce cleaner motor fuels by reconfiguring their processes with limited capital resources.

The drive for ever tighter new motor fuels legislation is grounded in concerns about urban pollution in particular, as well as the more general demands of the 1997 Kyoto protocol on global warming and climate change. The latter has set global targets for the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012, while the former has focused attention of both carmakers and politicians on the significance of the effects of vehicles on urban air quality.

For carmakers, the desire to achieve high de-NOx performance through catalytic converters, together with the general move towards more complete fuel combustion, have provided the necessary impetus to call for ever lower sulphur in fuels. NOx emissions from vehicles are undesirable since they are precursors to the formation of smog and ground-level ozone. Engines operating under lean-burn conditions unavoidably produce more NOx in exhausts; and sulphur inhibits the performance of the catalytic converters. The prospect that catalytic converters will soon be adopted on a wide scale with diesel engines is also clearly in the frame.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that car makers have taken the view that low-S, or even zero-S, in gasoline and diesel is the long term objective, and politicians have tended to follow a similar line of thought.

It should also be noted here that, although they are held to be Kyoto friendly overall, fuel cell vehicles offer no escape for the motor fuel supplier. When they arrive in numbers, fuel cell vehicles will be more energy efficient, and emit far less CO2 and NOx compared to those powered with an internal combustion engine. But, whether ethanol, methanol, gasoline or diesel, the fuels for fuel cell vehicles will also need to be low-S, because sulphur is also a poison for reforming catalysts.

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Giant new acid plant up and running

Summary

WMC Fertilizers Limited (WMCF) has recently brought into operation the world's largest metallurgical sulphuric acid plant at Mount Isa, NW Queensland, Australia. The plant will provide feedstock in excess of one million tonnes/year for downstream use in the manufacture of ammonium phosphates, 150 km SE of Mt Isa at Phosphate Hill. Steven Campbell, project manager at WMC Fertilizers, describes the project.

Abstract

WMC acquired the world class phosphate deposit from Broken Hill South some two decades ago and since that time, many feasibility studies have been carried out to determine a product mix to provide the best return on capital. In Decem­ber 1996, the WMC board sanctioned capital in excess of $700M AUD to produce in excess of one million t/y of ammonium phosphates.

The Phosphate Hill Complex con­sists of the following:

  • 300 t/h beneficiation plant design­ed by SKM and constructed by Theiss.
  • 1500 t/d phosphoric acid plant constructed by a Mistui/ABB/Clough consortium using Hydro Agri technology (single-stage hem-hydrate process).
  • 600 t/d ammonia plant constructed by Linde.
  • 135 t/h granulation plant constructed by Fluor Daniel using Jacobs technology.

The final product is transported by rail to the Townsville port, a distance of some 1000 km. The complex was commissioned during the last quarter of 1999 and has currently produced in excess of 20,000 tonnes of product.

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Standard versus hex head ferrules

Summary

The use of high alumina cylindrical ferrules and monolithic refractory are well established in the waste heat boiler of Claus sulphur recovery units. To overcome some of the drawbacks of this design, such as the problems caused by cracking of the monolithic refractory, Blasch Precision Ceramics has commercialised a new design involving a hex shaped ferrule which eliminates the need for monolithic refractory.

Abstract

In the first stage of the modified Claus sulphur recovery process, acid gas is combusted with air or oxygen in a combustion chamber. At the far side of the combustion chamber, there is a heat exchanger through which the gas is cooled. The face of the tubesheet and the inlet ends of the boiler tubes are protected from the effects of high temperatures (up to nearly 1650°C/3000°F) and corrosion by monolithic refractory and ceramic inserts.

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It all adds up

Summary

The big issues of sulphur supply and demand received a thorough airing at The Sulphur Institute's biennial Sulphur Markets conference. Some of the smaller markets that contribute to the balance of demand also merited attention. Chris Cunningham summarises the highs, the lows, and occasional wishful thinking behind lesser-known demand markets.

Abstract

Phosphates and metals smelting will grab the headlines at any get-together of brimstone interests. The Sulphur Institute’s (TSI) two-yearly conference in Washington DC in March proved no exception. But there are multifarious outlets for sulphur and sulphuric acid, other than fertilizer production, which together account for around 30 per cent of world demand.

Some of these demand markets are major industries in their own right – pulp and paper production, for instance, and pigment manufacture. Others, in particular applications in the construction industries, may yet have their day.

Whatever the prospects, speakers on some of the less familiar destinations for brimstone and acid were sure to win the attention of a roomful of sulphur marketers.

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