Ethylene And Propylene

Ethylene And Propylene: Chemical Building Blocks For A Variety Of Products


Production and Uses of Ethylene

Ethylene is the world’s most widely produced organic compound, with over 150 million metric tons produced annually worldwide. It is primarily used to produce polyethylene, which is utilized to create a variety of plastic products like food packaging, plastic bags, bottles, containers and more. The production of ethylene generally involves the steam cracking of hydrocarbon feedstocks like naphtha, natural gas liquids, gas oil or liquefied petroleum gas in high-temperature furnaces. This process produces ethylene and other byproducts like propylene, butadiene and benzene.

Ethylene gas is also directly used to produce ethylene oxide, ethylene dichloride, ethylbenzene and ethylene glycol, which are important intermediates used in the manufacture of detergents, antifreeze and other products. As a plant hormone, ethylene is important for fruit ripening and flower development in plants. It is commercially produced and used to artificially ripen bananas and other fruits during shipping and storage. Overall, ethylene production and its conversion to other organic chemicals through addition reactions has significant economic and industrial importance.

Production and Uses of Propylene

Like Ethylene And Propylene is predominantly produced through the steam cracking of petroleum feedstocks. Approximately 35 million metric tons are produced globally each year, with the United States being the largest single producer. Propylene can be polymerized to produce polypropylene, which finds wide application as a lightweight yet durable plastic in items like food containers, automotive components, reusable shipping containers and various craft and hobby items. It has stronger chemical and temperature resistance compared to low-density polyethylene produced from ethylene.

Beyond polypropylene, propylene is also used to manufacture propylene oxide and polypropylene glycols through an epoxidation process. These compounds possess polar, hydrophilic properties thanks to the addition of oxygen molecules. As such, they are important intermediates in manufacturing polyurethane foam rigid insulation and flexible foams for furniture, automotive interiors and more. Propylene oxide is also utilized to produce propylene glycol, the major ingredient in automotive antifreeze. Various functionalized propylene compounds are also employed as solvents in coatings and adhesive formulations.

Major Producers and Markets

The United States, China, Western Europe and the Middle East are among the largest global producers and consumers of ethylene and propylene. In the U.S., ethylene production is dominated by large integrated petrochemical companies such as ExxonMobil, Dow, Chevron Phillips Chemical and LyondellBasell. These firms operate extensive steam cracking facilities connected to polymerization plants co-located in major petrochemical manufacturing hubs along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River corridor. China has rapidly emerged as the world’s top ethylene producer thanks to new coal- and gas-based cracking units built to support its enormous plastics industry.

When examining global trading flows of ethylene and propylene, much of the supplies produced in the Middle East flow to Asian markets like China, South Korea, India and Southeast Asia which have growing polymer and chemical industries. Meanwhile, North American producers primarily satisfy domestic U.S. demand and also export significant volumes of ethylene to Mexico as feedstock to its plastics industry. Europe imports ethylene and propylene from the Middle East and elsewhere to supplement local steam cracking capacity.

New Production Technologies

To increase yields and lower manufacturing costs, new techniques for producing olefins like ethylene and propylene are regularly explored. One promising approach gaining attention is the use of methane or natural gas feeds for steam cracking. Natural gas contains a higher percentage of ethane and propane compared to traditional naphtha. Cracking these lighter alkanes has theoretical advantages for maximizing ethylene and propylene output while minimizing heavier byproducts.

Newer steam cracking furnace designs may also improve yields. For example, compact heat exchanger technology recovers more heat for reuse in the endothermic cracking reactions. Alternative production routes are also studied, like oxidative coupling of methane which directly converts natural gas into ethylene or oxygenate-to-olefin technologies deriving ethylene and propylene from methanol or dimethyl ether intermediates. These newer approaches promise more economical ethylene and propylene supplies to satisfy growing long-term demand, particularly if more shale gas resources become accessible for petrochemical manufacturing.

Environmental and Safety Considerations

As massive commodity chemicals synthesized in large volumes, environmental guidelines govern ethylene and propylene manufacture, distribution and usage. Plant emissions are regulated for air pollutants like volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulates which form smog or acid rain. Rigorous process safety practices are also mandated to prevent accidental ethylene releases which can cause fires or explosions due to its flammability even at low concentrations in air.

The plastics produced from ethylene and propylene are increasingly scrutinized for sustainable end-of-life management as unrecovered plastic waste in landfills and oceans has become a global concern. Industry efforts towards mechanical or chemical recycling over incineration can mitigate plastic pollution issues. Biodegradable plastics from renewable feedstocks may also complement conventional ethylene- and propylene-based polymers in the future to build a lower-carbon circular economy for plastic materials.

1.  Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it