Developing Trends & Technologies in Petrochemicals and Plastics
Pranjal Kumar Phukan
Senior Manager (C & P)
Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Limited.

In the downstream sector, catalysts and processing technologies need to endlessly evolve to enable processing and purification of the most difficult crudes, and to transform them into the desired fuels and petrochemical intermediates. Further along the value chain, in all the sectors, technology solutions are needed to improve energy efficiencies, allow the amalgamation of non-conventional fuels and moderate the climate-change impacts. As the energy demands attended with the growth of petrochemical and polymer industries continue to increase, there is an urgent requirement to apply the advancement of technology and innovative researches in the upstream operations such as exploration, production and downstream operations such as refining, petrochemical, polymer and general chemical industries operations for flagging the path of sustainable developments. Hence the development of promising technologies for exploration, production and refining of crude oil, on one side, and production of petrochemicals, state-of the–art polymers and various other products, on the other side, have made it unavoidable to pursue higher level of innovative researches amongst the experts and academicians in the and the like. Alongside of these operations, remain the up-keeping and maintenance of storage tanks, furnaces, transportation and utility systems and equipment thereby reducing loss of energy, corrosion and stress-induced cracks to avoid spillage of valuable products.

Innovation and R&D is imagined to become more complex, thereby challenging more investments. Therefore, organisations may opt to continue sharing experiences and commitment to similar objectives and should influence opportunities for regional integration.

The competitive environment of petrochemical industry is global in nature. In addition, the cost of production of petrochemicals is highly reliant on on feedstock cost. The regions with abundant low cost feedstock have obvious advantage over the regions where the accessibility of feedstock is limited or closely linked to crude oil pricing levels. The development of these conveniences are challenging due to high capital concentration. The petrochemical landscape has become even more compound with new technology trends that make the strategic master planning of these facilities even more stimulating.

This paper focuses on the technology trends that are shaping the petrochemical and plastic industry and contribute to the competitiveness of the businesses.The petrochemical and plastic industries are both driven by fundamental raw material and product supply-demand aspects, and enabled by technologies that open the road to these drivers. What makes the next decade as different for the petrochemical and plastic industry from other previous decades as it relates to the prominence of these raw materials? Will technologies permit an emergence of a viable platform for the industry's profitability beyond a brief trend of activity that passes into oblivion?

As described in Figure 1, the entire chain in the Plastic industry can be categorized into:
  • Upstream sector: Manufacturing of polymers,
  • Downstream sector: Conversion of polymers into plastic articles.
The upstream polymer manufacturers have commissioned globally competitive size plants with imported state-of-art technology from the world leaders. The upstream petrochemical industries have also seen amalgamation to remain globally competitive.

The downstream plastic processing industry is highly fragmented and consists of micro, small and medium units. There are over 30,000 registered plastic processing units of which about 75% are in the small-scale sector. The small-scale sector, however, accounts for only about 25% of polymer consumption. The industry also consumes recycled plastic, which constitutes about 30% of total consumption.

Emerging trends and way forward:

The short assessment sees the rapid technological responses to the Shale Gas Revolution, the China Coal Renaissance or the Biochemical Emergence, to coin a few tags, as evidence that the innovative expertise of the industry is alive and well. Is this really so or is the technology response just a patchwork mix of old incompetent technologies dressed up to appear pertinent to the short-term drivers?

For example, prominent technologies offered as process solutions to the olefins product mix change caused by lighter steam cracker feedstocks include metathesis (developed and commercialized in the 1980s), propane dehydrogenation (commercialized in the early 1990s), butane-to-butadiene (commercialized in the 1960s), methanol-to-olefins (developed in the 1980s and 1990s), gas-to-liquids (developed in the 1970s and commercialized in the early 1980s), and LPG-to-aromatics (developed in the 1980s and commercialized in the late 1990s).The Indian Plastic processing industry has seen a move from low output/low technology machines to high output, high technology machines. There has been some major technological progression of global standards leading to achievements. Focus to develop a state-of-the-art R&D is disappearing down with more focus on growing the capacity utilization. Domestic machinery is manufactured as per the existing technology to improve productivity and energy efficiency, in order to enable the processors to strive globally. Key machineries are imported from Europe, the U.S. and Japan which invite an 18% IGST causing huge losses. India's technical requirements are critical in areas like high production and automatic blow molding machines, multilayer blow molding, stretch/blow molding machines, specific projects relating high capital expenditure like PVC calendaring; multilayer film plants for barrier films, multilayer cast lines, BOPP and non-woven depend solely on imported technology/machinery.

The application of nanotechnology to plastics is the opportunity to affect the performance of a specific resin and a profile of additives at the molecular level. This type of detailed engineering has produced materials with properties such as significantly enhanced heat, dent and scratch resistance. There can also be an upsurge in dimensional constancy, electrical conductivity, stiffness, and flame retardancy - any number of promising characteristics. Being able to control the material performance at such a fundamental level and input a nearly infinite variety of substances as additives, gives the engineer and product designer substantially more latitude in product design and performance.

Materials that are being applied to nanocomposites include nanoclays, carbon nanotubes, nanotalcs, other minerals and associated materials. At this level, the vital characteristics of the resin can have a exclusive interplay with the properties of each additive. This opens up the field of material science to a whole new tactic but also brings a much higher level of complexity. This will drive the need for a wide selection of software modeling, prototyping and testing to enable a more measured and rapidly deployed material growth process.Some of the instant applications for nanocomposites include automotive and aerospace components; military hardware; electronics; medical devices; timed release of biocides and dyes; barrier layers within food packaging; semiconductor/polymer device for improved photovoltaic solar cells; foam applications for seat cushions, disposable diapers; packaging materials - the list seem endless. Nanocomposites will be a key player in the on-going materials revolution that will produce many new product applications.

Advancement in technologies:
  • Gravimetric technology furthered the use of weigh scale blending, gravimetric dosing, and integrated control in any production facility.
  • "Liquidmetal" technology has evolved to molding technologies advanced by the plastics industry for forming amorphous metals.
  • High performance polyamides grades viz., PA6, PA66, PPA, PA612, PA12, amorphous grades and bio-based grades, which are used for metal replacement, high temperature, transparency, or other requirements, along with its use for medical devices.
  • Multi material machines and auxiliary “Bolton” injection units for multi-material molding
  • Linear robots with the ability of performing a wide variety of automation including packaging, insert loading, assembly, labeling, and much more.
  • Thermosetting polymers that are recyclable, called poly (hexahydrotriazine) s, or PHTs, which these can be dissolved in strong acid, breaking apart the polymer chains into component monomers and can then be reassembled into new products.

The level of production and consumption of plastics is low in India at present and it provides a big opportunity for development of the sector. However, there are challenges like lack of sufficient feedstock, for the industry. The industry should look at newer sources of energy like shale gas, bio fuels and even hydrocarbon streams which were not exploited earlier, for the manufacture of value-added petrochemicals. Adopting the latest technology would also turn the negative image dominating in certain forms of plastics and turn it into a constructive one.

The speedy changes in new material technology may outdate existing products by offering improved performance or reduced cost. In addition, the progressing ability of off-shore sources to provide lesser cost substitutes to more refined parts and equipment fabrication will unceasingly cut into domestic production. It is important to stay up-to-date of new product and process developments and be positioned to make tactical changes and investments. Larger companies may need to augment their R & D function and gain access to additional R & D resources such as a university with a polymer program or other technology partner