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More change at ICI

Summary

ICI Katalco, one of the leading suppliers of catalysts to the ammonia and methanol industries, has undergone a major reorganisation in recent weeks to become Synetix, ICI's new amalgamated catalyst division. Nitrogen & Methanol looks at the changes and the implications for the industry.

Abstract

Over the past few years, ICI has probably seen the most change of any major chemicals producer. After the spin off of ICI’s pharmaceuticals and biotechnology business as Zeneca, the heavy chemicals ‘rump’ of ICI has steadily begun to reposition itself as a fine and speciality chemicals producer. Gone are fertilizers and explosives, and bought in is Unilever’s speciality chemicals business. ICI’s Katalco division has also seen major changes. Last year it acquired BASF’s catalyst division, and now it is being reorganised and rebranded as Synetix, ­taking on board catalyst producing divisions from the new acquisitions, as well as some other sections of ICI.

Synetix is thus an amalgamation of all of ICI’s catalyst businesses under one roof. As well as ICI Katalco, which has specialised in syngas, ammonia and methanol catalysts, there is also Vertec, originally part of Tioxide, once another ICI company which produces titanium dioxide pigments, but most of which has also been disposed of over the past year. Vertec was a spin-off unit which specialises in organotitanate compounds, especially organometallic catalysts, which are critical to the polymer industry. Vertec also has two other business interests – inks and coatings; catalysts account for about 35% of Vertec’s business.

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Ammonium bicarbonate China's bedrock

Summary

For the past 40 years, ammonium bicarbonate (ABC) has been a mainstay of Chinese agriculture. Today, however, its former dominant position is being eroded by urea. In this article, Fan Xiushan, Xu Xiucheng and Duan Ping of the Zhengzhou University of Technology look at ammonium bicarbonate's history and properties, and the future of the industry in China.

Abstract

China began production of ammonium bicarbonate in 1958. When aqueous am­monia was used to remove carbon dioxide from dissolved solutions to be used for ammonia synthesis, it was discovered that the resultant reaction product crystallised out and could be used as a fertilizer; ammonium bicarbonate (NH4HCO3). With such a relatively simple process and low investment costs, the technology became widely adopted throughout the country. Most plants were small, with a capacity of only 3,000 – 5,000 t/a of NH3, although there were a few medium-sized ones with a capacity of 45,000 t/a.

The ABC produced in this way has accounted for about half of all nitrogen fertilizer used in China since 1972. ABC’s heyday was in 1979, when 1,539 small plants were operational in the country, although the technology was not as advanced as today, and the resultant energy consumption was very high indeed, resulting in an ongoing financial loss for a long period of time. In the early 1980s, the government began rationalisation, closing some of the least efficient and most badly operated plants, and by 1982 the 17 years of financial loss ended and a margin was at last achieved on this product. By 1983 there were 1,200 small plants and 15 medium-sized plants in operation. Some of the smaller plants increased their capacity to around 10-25,000 t/a NH3 at this time.

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Consolidation of the global methanol industry

Summary

The global methanol industry was until this decade a very fragmented one. However, over the past few years a structural change has taken place which will transform the industry. This has been due to the emergence of three major methanol producers who will soon dominate the market.

Abstract

At the start of the 1990s, the global methanol industry consisted almost entirely of single plant operators. The largest player was Ar-Razi, in Saudi Arabia, with 1,120,000 t/a of nameplate capacity, around 5% of the market. Since then, however, new construction and merger and acquisition activity has transformed the industry from one where no single supplier dominated to an effective oligopoly. Next year, when new plants come on-stream in Chile, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad, three companies will effectively control one third of global methanol capacity, and, more importantly, around two thirds of the merchant methanol market. They are: Canadian-based Methanex; Saudi Arabian major Sabic; and the Caribbean Petro­chemical Marketing Company. The emergence of these three large companies and their associated marketing organisations over the past few has forever changed the way that the methanol industry works.

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Methanol for the millennium

Summary

Nitrogen & Methanol surveys the latest methanol technologies and looks at how the development of new processes and a changing market may impact on the methanol industry as we enter the 21st century.

Abstract

Methanol synthesis from syngas involves the reaction of carbon oxides with hydrogen:

CO+2H2 CH3OH

CO2+3H2 CH3OH + H2O

Both of the above reactions are exothermic and result in a reduction in volume. The conversion reaction is, therefore, favoured by low temperatures and high pressures. Traditional synthesis pro­cesses take place at low pressures, close to the pressures at which the steam re­forming production of synthesis gas operates. These processes use far less energy than high pressure ones. The reactions are promoted by the use of catalysts. Although the equilibrium conditions favour low temperatures, methanol converters must be operated at temperatures in the range 200-300°C to ensure the catalysts are active. As the synthesis reactions are strongly exothermic, heat removal is an important part of the process.

As the conversion favours high pressures, low pressure processes tend to result in only a low fraction of the synthesis gas being converted each pass. The processes therefore use a recycle loop to achieve adequate yields, with a purge gas to remove impurities that would otherwise build up over time. The amount of purge depends on the stoichiometric ratio of reactants in the synthesis gas. For example, when the gas is too rich in carbon oxides it may be necessary to remove the excess through absorption or adsorption in the form of CO2. If the gas is too rich in hydrogen, rejection via water is required.

The catalysts used in low-pressure methanol synthesis are composed of copper oxide and zinc oxide, with aluminium oxide added as a carrier1. The ratios of the three components varies from one manufacturer to another. As a rule the proportion of CuO ranges between 50-80%, that of ZnO between 10-30% and Al2O3 from 5-10%. Additives such as MgO may also be present. Such catalysts are manufactured by Synetix, Süd Chemie, Topsøe and Mitsubishi Gas Chemical.

A good catalyst should remain active for several years so as to sustain high plant output. However, over time, catalysts may be poisoned by sulphur or chlorine compounds or by metal carbonyls formed during reaction. More commonly, however, they are deactivated by thermal sintering or carbon deposition. Converter de­signs take this into account, being based on estimated catalyst activity after a period of operation of usually three years rather than that of a fresh catalyst. The converter should be able operate at its nameplate capacity even at these so-called “end-of-run” conditions.

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Design considerations for syngas drive steam turbines

Summary

George M Lucas of Dresser-Rand tackles a critical area of methanol and ammonia plant reliability: syngas compressor turbines.

Abstract

Several important industrial processes, chief among them the production of methanol and primary ammonia, start with the production of synthesis gas, commonly shortened to syngas. In these processes, centrifugal compressors are used to raise the syngas to the relatively high pressures at which the reactions to produce the end product are carried out. The syngas compressors are a major consumer of energy in these processes. Since the process relies on these compressors, the reliability of both the compressors and their drivers is critical to plant availability.

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