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Publication > Issue > Articles

Still chasing the Holy Grail?

Summary

Methanol has been widely touted as a fuel for fuel cells in the next generation of vehicles, and even for static applications. However, it is still in competition with a variety of other potential fuels. Nitrogen & Methanol reviews progress in this area.

Abstract

Demand for methanol is still dominated at present by the three main chemical derivatives; formaldehyde, acetic acid, and methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Because of their use in a variety of end-uses, many to do with fibres, plastics, and the building trade (laminate wooden fibreboard, for example), growth in formaldehyde and acetic acid demand is largely correlated with GDP growth, although acetic acid demand is rising slightly faster due to the increasing popularity of the methanol route to acetic acid over rival processes. MTBE’s main use is as a gasoline additive to make the fuel burn more smoothly, and its demand is down to environmental legislation in various countries. However, with MTBE facing a ban in the United States (see separate article in this issue), due to contamination of ground water in California and other places, demand for methanol is set to remain static for some years to come.

Methanol producers have long looked for a new area of demand that would come to the rescue of a largely mature demand. MTBE has not proved to be this area, and talk of methanol as a carbon fertilizer has not materialised into actual demand. Its take-up as a water treatment chemical has likewise not grown quickly. It is therefore methanol’s use as a fuel which has remained something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for the industry. Methanol was used directly blended into gasoline in California during the 1990s (so-called M85), but again was not widely taken up. Its use as a fuel is essentially contingent on it being available at a price which can compete with other rival fuels. The new generation of ‘mega-methanol’ plants may ultimately realise this ambition, more on which later, but for the time being methanol as a fuel is being touted for niche applications where it has a competitive advantage. The major such area is its use as a fuel for fuel cells.

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Methanol after MTBE

Summary

By the start of next year a ban on the use of methyl tert-butyl ether is expected to be in place in many US states, removing the bulk of demand for this compound. This article looks ahead to a future for the methanol industry that does not include US MTBE; around 15% of global methanol demand.

Abstract

Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is produced by the reaction of methanol with isobutylene using an acid catalyst. Some 95% of global demand for MTBE is as a fuel blendstock. The chemical demand is for production of methacrolein and methacrlyic acid. Every tonne of MTBE produced therefore uses around 0.36 tonnes of methanol. Until the 1990s, global demand for MTBE was relatively modest. However, its use, and hence that of methanol, mushroomed due to the passing of the Clean Air Act Amendment in the United States, which mandated the use of oxygenates in so-called ‘reformulated’ gasoline (RFG), in order to make the fuel burn more cleanly in engines and reduce carbon monoxide levels in built-up areas in winter. RFG had to be 2.7% oxygen by weight. Initially it was anticipated that this would be met by blending ethanol into the fuel, giving a welcome boost to the US farming economy, since the ethanol is largely derived from processing of corn starch. However, refiners discovered that MTBE was considerably cheaper, and so began to favour its use instead. With RFG consisting of up to 11% MTBE by volume, demand for MTBE and hence for methanol mushroomed, until MTBE represented 40% of US methanol demand, and a large slice of methanol consumption worldwide.

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New ammonia WHB internals raise capacity, enhance reliability

Summary

Brown Fintube has introduced an alternative tube bundle design which can be directly substituted for the bayonet-tubed internals of the 101-C main process gas coolers in some older ammonia plants.

Abstract

In a conventional ammonia plant which generates its raw synthesis gas in a fired tubular reforming furnace, there are three potential major sources of high-grade heat. These are the hot exhaust gas passing out of the furnace box, the process gas leaving the secondary reformer, and the process gas leaving the ammonia synthesis reactor. Other, lower-grade heat sources are the HT and LT shift sections and the methanation reactor.

From its earliest days the art of the integrated single-train ammonia process essentially lay in matching the grade and amount of heat recovered in those parts of the plant which produce it to the requirements of those parts of the plant that consume it. Because of the number of options for both capturing and utilising waste energy, the steam system in integrated single-train plants is complex and often varies in detail from plant to plant.

Individual process designers have their preferences about what to do with process heat at the various stages. A substantial source of heat is the flue gas duct from the primary reforming furnace, where the recovery train may include combustion air preheat, feedstock preheat, steam superheat, process air preheat, mixed reformer feed preheat, and boiler feed water preheat.

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GHR out of the wood yet?

Summary

Using recycled process heat to drive the steam reforming reaction rather than doing it in a furnace has considerable attractions from the point of view of site space and economics. But there is an awkward metallurgical problem when operating at low steam: carbon ratios. Has it been solved yet?

Abstract

Synthesis gas – a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide – is the common intermediate in the production of ammonia, hydrogen, methanol, “oxo alcohols”, Fischer- Tropsch hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. In the case of ammonia and hydrogen, all of the carbon oxides have to be removed, and for ammonia production nitrogen is added. For all other purposes, the carbon is required in the end product, though in what proportions depends on the composition of the designated product. There are other ways of making these products, but it is by far the most usual to go via synthesis gas.

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A shipbuilder's view

Summary

Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co Ltd (DSME) is a major constructor of ammonia and LPG tankers. David Hayes spoke to executive director Duck Yull Lee at the company's South Korea offices about the specifications of ammonia/LPG tankers and the market for such vessels.

Abstract

Construction orders for LPG tankers are expected to increase over the next few years as shipping companies begin to add tankers to their fleets to supply the forecasted growth in demand for LPG, ammonia and other similar gases in Asia, particularly China. In fact, growing use of LPG, ammonia and related gases is not the only factor likely to increase gas carrier construction orders.

A significant proportion of the world’s existing LPG tanker fleet is ageing and soon will require replacing as gas carrier owners begin to modernize their fleets. A typical fully refrigerated LPG tanker is designed to carry various cargoes including propane, butane, anhydrous ammonia, butylenes, propylene, butadiene and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). Because LPG carriers generally have three independent, self-supporting prismatic cargo tanks, each tanker can carry up to three separate cargoes for different customers.

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