BP touts new technologies for ethanol-to-ethylene, syngas-to-acetic acid

BP has unveiled two new technologies for the production of key petrochemical feedstocks, the company said on Thursday.

The first, SaaBre, is a new route for the production of acetic acid from syngas and Hummingbird directly converts ethanol to ethylene through dehydration.

SaaBre’s breakthrough is a process for the conversion of synthesis gas―carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons such as natural gas―directly to acetic acid in a proprietary, integrated three-step process that avoids the need to purify CO or purchase methanol.

BP says SaaBre is expected to deliver a significant reduction in variable manufacturing costs, and lead to capital efficiencies, compared to the carbonylation of methanol route, which has been the leading technology for several decades.

“BP has a long history of successfully optimizing methanol carbonylation chemistry and the associated process, but we believe that methanol carbonylation has reached the limits of its fundamental chemistry,” said Dan Leonardi, vice president of petrochemicals technology for BP. “So we decided some years ago that, to make a significant difference to the economics of manufacturing acetic acid at scale, we needed a fresh start.”

Acetic acid is a versatile intermediate chemical, used in a variety of products, such as paints, adhesives and solvents, as well as in the production of purified terephthalic acid (PTA), used extensively in polyester manufacture.

"SaaBre is the most significant development for acetic acid production in 40 years and adds to our portfolio of leading technologies," said Nick Elmslie, CEO of BP’s global petrochemicals business.

“The principle advantages of SaaBre are that it eliminates the need to purify carbon monoxide, does not require the purchase of methanol and contains no iodides reducing the need for exotic metallurgy," he continued. "We are excited about the development potential of this technology for the production of additional products such as methanol and ethanol.”

Meanwhile, Hummingbird is a newly-developed proprietary process by which ethanol is dehydrated to produce ethylene, a fundamental building block for the plastics and other petrochemical industries. The new technology is lower cost and simpler compared to existing ethanol to ethylene technologies.

Hummingbird is a next-generation technology, clearly differentiated from the competition,” said Dr. Charles Cameron, BP’s head of downstream technology. “The Hummingbird process with its proprietary catalyst and its milder operating conditions is ultra-selective, resulting in a market leading conversion of ethanol to ethylene.”

Both SaaBre and Hummingbird were developed over a number of years at BP’s advanced laboratories at the Hull Research and Technology Centre, alongside its acetic acid manufacturing site, Europe’s largest, at Saltend, Hull in the UK.

BP says is actively exploring options for commercializing both technologies. SaaBre is planned for deployment in future acetic acid investments, while Hummingbird is a licensing play for BP.

“We see a considerable market for smaller-scale ethylene production where full-scale crackers would not be commercially viable,” said Mark Howard, vice president of BP's conversion technology business. “These two new processes, developed in-house at Hull, show the significant value technology brings to our chemicals business.”

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