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Slow progress for urea developments

Summary

While the Burmese government continues to discuss gas export schemes to neighbouring countries, attempts to expand the country's ailing ammonia and urea capacity have so far failed to bear fruit in spite of huge domestic demand for nitrogen fertilizer. David Hayes reports on the state of play in one of the world's most secretive states.

Abstract

Progress in talks concerning the long awaited expansion of urea production is still awaited in Burma, where the government is involved in negotiations with China and Thailand over the export of gas from two offshore gas fields through separate cross border pipeline schemes that could double the country’s export earnings from natural gas, its major source of foreign exchange revenue.

Full details of the two separate gas export projects have not been revealed. However, foreign observers expect the secretive ruling military regime to insist that part of the proposed new gas production to be developed to fulfil new export contracts will be used to increase gas supplies to the domestic market, where Burma’s long suffering citizens face worsening energy shortages and declining living standards due to a long history of economic mismanagement.

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Chinese renaissance

Summary

In China, the production of chemicals from coal feedstock has seen a big revival. Charles Fryer and Xuesong Peng of Tecnon OrbiChem Ltd discuss the reasons behind these recent trends and report on key coal-based chemical projects in the region.

Abstract

Historians of the chemical industry debate which has been the main driving force in its development: availability of cheap feedstocks, or new technology. Of course the two can not be wholly separated. Emergence of cheap feedstocks has stimulated the invention of new technology, while conversely new technology has enabled a neglected feedstock to be exploited. The balance of opinion is that the first of these two factors has been the main driving force. That certainly seems to be the case when we look at the rebirth of coal as a feedstock for chemicals in China.

Coal was the main raw material of the world’s chemical industry until 50 years ago. Today we think of the chemical industry as being essentially a petro-chemical industry, using petroleum as its basic feedstock. However, over the period 1850 to 1950 the main feedstock for organic chemicals was benzole made as a byproduct from the destructive distillation of coal for the production of coke and town gas. The chemical industry was largely created from the benzene, naphthalene and anthracene derived from coal, while coal was the main energy source for chemical processes.

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Prills or granules?

Summary

Russia's JSC NIIK offers a perspective on the best form for urea

Abstract

Urea (chemical formula H2NCONH2) – an amide of carbamic acid or diamide of carbonic acid – is basically a fertilizer. The increasing use of nitrogen to boost soil fertility has been the driving factor for the growth in the market for urea. The physical and chemical as well as agronomic properties of urea make it one of the safest solid nitrogen fertilizers, with a nitrogen content of not less 46%, and it is proven as largely without fire or explosion risk and a physiologically ‘friendly’ product.

The agrochemical properties of urea can be more advantageous than those of ammonium nitrate. The amide nitrogen contained in urea takes a longer time to be released into the soil than the nitrate form in ammonium nitrate. Urea nitrogen therefore has a much more continuous effect for irrigated cropping, or for deeply moisturised and sandy soils.

Urea is now consumed worldwide as a fertilizer, and its form is a significant factor in its merchandising. In its essential physical and chemical form urea is a crystalloid colourless substance formed as thin ­needles or rhombic prisms, with a melting point of 132.7°C. The early commercial forms of urea had many disadvantages. Application experience showed that introducing crystalline mineral fertilizers into soil lead to many complications such as crushing, clogging of fertilizer spreaders and seeding machines. Crystalline urea also cakes very heavily during storage, which is another stumbling point for its application as fertilizer.

The development of urea production technologies was encouraged by the invention of a urea granulation process that appeared to be extremely beneficial for agricultural application, i.e. primarily non-caking, and of uniform size for application to soils via mechanical methods.

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Oryx GTL from conception to reality

Summary

Qatar has ambitions to become the GTL capital of the world. Kevin Halstead of Foster Wheeler provides a case study of Oryx GTL, the first new-generation commercial-scale gas-to-liquids plant using the low temperature Fischer-Tropsch process. The new technology provides an attractive alternative to crude-derived transportation fuels. Some of the many technical challenges faced throughout the project are outlined.

Abstract

Oryx GTL, a joint venture between state-owned Qatar Petroleum (51%) and South African-based petrochemical company Sasol Ltd (49%), is the world’s first new generation, commercial-scale, gas-to-liquids (GTL) facility. Oryx GTL is the first of a series of projects for Qatar, whose stated ambition is to become the “GTL capital of the world.”

The plant is located at Ras Laffan Industrial City (RLIC), a significant industrial de­velopment of 100 km2, located 75 km north of Qatar’s capital, Doha. RLIC already has significant LNG and chemical processing facilities in operation and contains extensive infrastructure to support additional gas processing facilities including a well-equipped modern port.

Oryx GTL is a grassroots facility able to process 9.3 million m3/d of lean natural gas from Qatar’s North gas field to produce 34,000 bbl/d of liquids (24,000 bbl/d of GTL diesel, 9,000 bbl/d of naphtha and 1,000 bbl/d of liquefied petroleum gas).

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Russia's syngas industries

Summary

While Russia's petrochemical sector is enjoying the current run of high prices, rising natural gas prices and continuing industry consolidation point to more change ahead.

Abstract

Russia is enjoying a sustained period of economic expansion. In 2006, real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by approximately 6.7%, continuing an eight-year trend of higher than average growth compared to other G8 countries (averaging about 6.5% over the period). High oil and gas prices have driven this growth, assisted by an increase in Russian oil production. However, the country’s economy remains heavily dependent on oil and natural gas exports, making it very vulnerable to shifts in world prices. According to the IMF, every $1/bbl increase or decrease in the oil price accounts for about one third of a % of GDP growth or reduction, or about $3.4bn.

Russia is attempting to manage this via a stabilisation fund established in 2004, which was worth $80bn at the start of 2007, or as much as 7% of GDP. According to the World Bank, oil and gas represent roughly 20% of Russia’s GDP and 65% of its export earnings, as well as attracting one third of all foreign direct investment in the country.

For this reason it is perhaps unsurprising that the government is keen to retain control over the energy sector, although this has occasionally led to accusations of it muscling out other corporate interests. Most famously, in December 2006 state gas monopoly Gazprom took majority control over Royal Dutch Shell’s Sakhalin-II project after Russian regulators had withdrawn an environmental permit for the huge project, citing damage to salmon streams. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt by the Russian government to force a renegotiation of the Sakhalin-II deal. Privately-owned Russian companies have also complained about unfair competition by state entities, for example in terms of access to export pipelines.

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Pushing the limits

Summary

The biggest ammonia plant in the world, SAFCO IV, is very much in context in the phenomenal Jubail industrial complex. Alex More took a tour of the site.

Abstract

Imagine a petrochemical complex cov­ering 82 km2. That’s Jubail – at the moment. Now add another 62 km2. That’s the Jubail of the future. There is even talk of developing a third site when the second is filled up. But there is no talk of difficulty in finding the feedstocks to run such a leviathan; this is, after all, Saudi Arabia! Nowadays there are not many locations in the world where feedstock supply for a project of such magnitude would not be of concern.

About 100 km up the Gulf coast from Dammam, Al-Jubail was until the 1970s a small fishing town with extremely ancient roots, dating back around 7000 years. In 1975, on the northern edge of the old town, there began a simply massive programme of industrial development, comprising the construction of what is now the world’s largest petrochemical complex, along with a complete new community area providing housing and civic amenities for the workforce. This is Jubail Industrial City. Simultaneously, a sister industrialization project began at Yanbu, on the Red Sea.

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