Natural Gas to Petrochemicals
The main component in natural gas is methane, CH4, while petrochemicals consist of many carbon (C) atoms connected in various conformations. inGAP has chosen a few areas in which we focus on the production of building blocks for petrochemicals. For instance ethene and functionalised ethenes are molecules required for making various plastic products.
inGAP focuses on developing new and improving existing technologies for making monomers for polymerproduction.
What are petrochemicals?
As the name implies, petrochemicals are chemical products manufactured from petroleum. The large majority of chemical products are produced from petroleum (oil) or natural gas. Sometimes, coal or biomass is employed. Among the petrochemical products, we find plastics, such as polyvinylchloride (PVC), polyethylene, polypropylene; synthetic fibers such as polyesters, nylons; elastomers which are rubber-type materials; fertilizers; pharmaceuticals; paints; detergents; insecticides; vitamins; etc. Most of these products are made from surprisingly few chemical intermediates, referred to as base chemicals:
- Light alkenes - ethene, propene, and butadiene.
- Aromatic compounds - benzene, toluene, and xylenes.
- Synthesis gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen and products made from syngas - ammonia and methanol.
Petrochemicals from natural gas
Several of these base chemicals may be made more readily from natural gas rather than petroleum. Synthesis gas is an obvious candidate, due to the high hydrogen content of natural gas. Moreover, the light alkenes may be made from wet natural gas (NGL) in a process known as steam cracking. Within inGAP, we carry out research in order to understand how ethene and ethene derivatives are formed in several chemical processes. These compounds are used to produce plastic polymers.
How chemistry resembles LEGO
Plastic products are composed of small chemical compounds connected in rows and networks so that they become large molecules. These small chemical compounds can be considered the lego-blocks of the petrochemical industry. By making small alterations to these building blocks, an incredible variety of plastics can be produced. For instance, everyday use articles such as plastic spectacles (you might not know that most glasses today are made of plastic and not glass), your computer keyboard, the car dashboard, and your shopping bag are all made of plastic. It is easy to note that plastics cover a wide range from soft and pliable to hard and seemingly unbreakable. Plastics may be transparent or opaque.
inGAP's building blocks for plastic
In inGAP, we focus on processes that are particularly relevant for our industrial partners.One example is production of the Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM or H2C=CHCl). This is the building block used for making PVC, which is a very common type of hard plastic. Based on new knowledge achieved within the inGAP collaboration, our industrial partner INEOS, changed the catalyst in a running VCM plant in 2010, thus drastically improving the competitiveness of their process.
Another research activity in inGAP is directed towards a process for the formation of ethene (H2C=CH2) and propene (H2C=CHCH3) from natural gas. In the Methanol-to-Olefins (MTO) process, methanol is converted to these light alkenes. This process is similar to the Methanol-to-Gasoline process, also studied within inGAP. The main difference is the choice of catalyst and operating conditions. We have developed extremely advanced equipment that allows us to monitor in real time the reactions that occur on the actual surface of the catalyst using high energy radiation only available at synchrotrons.