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Honeywell, BASF tout rival solutions for global butadiene shortage

06.12.2014  |  HP News Services

The shale boom responsible for the problem may also provide the solution, as many companies are racing to develop new technologies to make butadiene from butane.



The shale boom that has boosted US natural gas supplies is causing an unintended shortage of a key petrochemical used to make synthetic rubber for tires.

Manufacturing giants Honeywell International and BASF are touting rival solutions.

Butadiene, which the US discovered could be turned into a rubber substitute during World War II after Asian supplies were cut off, is a byproduct of making plastics from oil-based naphtha. Shortages loom as plastics manufacturers switch their feedstock to less expensive ethane, a natural gas liquid which yields little butadiene.

That could lead to higher prices for motorists as tire makers pass along cost increases. The shale boom responsible for the problem may also provide the solution as Honeywell, in partnership with TPC Group, and BASF working with Linde, race to develop technology to produce butadiene from butane, a now plentiful natural gas liquid.

“Whenever there is a gap that opens up in the petrochemical world, people are going to throw capital and technology at it until they solve it,” John Roberts, a New York-based chemical industry analyst at UBS Securities, said in an interview.

The butadiene shortfall may be as little as 7% over the next decade if the industry shift to gas feedstocks is limited to North America, or as much as 27% if Europe and Asia embrace the trend, according to Honeywell.

Significant Shortages

Houston-based TPC Group, which plans to build a plant in 2017 or 2018 to produce butadiene by on-purpose production instead of capturing it as a byproduct, brought on Honeywell to update technology it hasn’t used since the 1980s, according to chief financial officer Miguel Desdin. The company was acquired in 2012 by a consortium led by SK Capital Partners.

“In the medium and longer term, if demand picks up there’s going to be a significant shortage of butadiene because the supply has tightened,” Desdin said in an interview.

When butadiene doubled in 2011, tire makers tried to recoup lost margins by raising prices. Higher raw material costs eroded earnings at tire maker Michelin & Cie by an estimated 1.8 billion euros ($2.44 billion) that year and 500 million euros in 2012. Michelin in November said it’s researching butadiene production from plant materials in anticipation that shortages will return.

Honeywell and TPC plan to have technology for on-purpose production of butadiene ready by year end and are already talking with potential licensees, Jim Rekoske, petrochemical global business director for Honeywell’s UOP unit, said in a telephone interview. Demand could require as many as 20 to 30 plants worldwide, the companies said.

Shale Boom

Gas has become cheaper as hydraulic fracturing or fracking has boosted production from shale formations. The shale boom has spurred plans for a record $113 billion in chemical manufacturing investments, according to the American Chemistry Council.

BASF and companies such as Dow Chemical and Westlake Chemical are converting US factories that make chemicals from naphtha into ones that use lighter feedstock such as ethane. New factories planned by Dow and other companies will use ethane, constraining butadiene supplies.

While ethane and naphtha both yield ethylene, the most common petrochemical, ethane yields only about 14% of the butadiene that comes from naphtha processing. Ethane also yields less propylene and benzene.

Petrologistics is producing propylene, used to make paints, carpets and plastic bottle caps, from butane at its plant in Houston. At least six more plants are planned by Dow Chemical, Enterprise Products and others. BASF plans to make propylene from methane.

Explosive Growth

Honeywell’s UOP unit has seen explosive growth in demand for propylene. It has licensed its technology for 22 propylene plants since 2011 after winning only 13 in the previous two decades, Rekoske said.

Honeywell UOP and TPC are ahead of their chief rivals, BASF and Linde, in bringing on-purpose butadiene to market. The German companies announced on June 3 that they will develop their process in a pilot plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany. They also plan to license their technology, though it’s too early to say when it will be commercially available, according to Silvia Mueller, a BASF spokeswoman.

“We are optimistic that we can offer a new best-in-class technology for the manufacturing of on-purpose butadiene to help producers meet the increasing global demand,” Mueller said.

High-Grip Tires

Butadiene prices climbed to $1,499/ton in April from $1,190 in December, according to Nexant data compiled by Bloomberg. Butadiene has fluctuated in recent years, rising to $3,858 in August 2011 and falling as low as $610 in June 2009.

About 60% of the rubber used in the tire industry is synthetic, Clermont Ferrand, France-based Michelin said on its website. Synthetic rubber is best for high-grip tires, improves longevity and decreases rolling resistance, according to Michelin.

Several Chinese plants are being built for on-purpose butadiene production, two of which are expected to begin operations this year, Rekoske said. Those plants are using technology that hasn’t been proven, he added.

“We feel very confident that our technology is economically superior,” Rekoske said.

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Dr El Daoushy

I appreciate your efforts to produce butadiene for synthetic rubber.This is an golden basic industry choice,thus helping to develop a better life for all human beings.
I wish you good luck.
Dr M.El Daoushy-B.Sc.M.Sc.&Ph.D.-RWTH Aachen
Oil,Gas,Petrochemical consultant

Amarjit Bakshi

I hope TPC/UOP process is some innovation from what TPC has been using in past is Old Houdry process with chromium catalyst and cyclic reactors at very high temperature which have some major ROI problems and though TPC came up with oxidative ptocess of catofin. Where as dehydrogenation process for Oleflex is only to olefins or iso-olefins but going to butadiene will be difficult in oleflex and has not been used and i do not think UOP plans to go in that direction as it will be not suiable . That is reason UOP went with TPC but it has to be seen what innovation TPC has apart from oxidative Catofin process which is not much.
So let us see what is this new development at TPC which UOP has embraced and joined to come up new process which ill be available by year end.

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