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Petrochemical Plant: What Is It? What Does It Make? What Does It Look Like?

What are you wearing? A red shirt? A blue shirt? A pencil skirt? A stylish pair of trousers? What you may not know about your clothing is that you could be wearing a product that originated from natural gas.

There are many things that are produced using natural gas, and if Shell officially decides to build and operate a petrochemical plant in Beaver County many of those products will have their start right here. But many questions surround the petrochemical plant. A few of the common questions are: What are they going to make there? How are they going to do it? What is it going to look like?

Dan Carlson, general manager, new business development, Shell Chemical LP, answered this question Wednesday evening during a community session about the plant. He said the plant would produce “feedstock.”

“Feedstock” is used to make petrochemicals that are used to make the final products that we know as plastic bottles, polyester clothing, cleaning products, antifreeze, and others.

It All Starts With Natural Gas

The natural gas liquids (NGLs) used to make “feedstock” are plentiful in natural gas deposits found in the Marcellus Shale. These NGLs are made up of ethane, propane, butane, and other compounds. Gas companies separate NGLs from natural gas to allow the methane found in it to be shipped by pipeline and used as feedstock to produce petrochemicals or fuels.

Shell will not drill for natural gas at the proposed site. Instead, the company plans to use the ethane found in their own Marcellus Shale production and in other regional gas producers’ supplies to feed into its cracker. So, you won’t see any rigs on the plant’s site.

“We will use the resource locally to boost job development,” Carlson said.

According to Carlson, it takes about 400 wells to feed the cracker. The wells need to be tapped for decades.

Cracking The Resources

Once the NGLs are separated, they are then cracked (hence the name cracker plant). A cracker is a petrochemical facility that breaks down large molecules from oil and gas into smaller ones. Ethane is a common NGL product that is fed into the cracker. The cracker breaks up the carbon and hydrogen molecules and rearranges them. The cracking process begins in a furnace where ethane is heated to more than 800°C (1,500°F). After the heating process comes the compression process. Then the cooling (-100°F) process takes place. This cracking process creates the necessary products to create derivatives.

What Are Derivatives?

Derivatives are the petrochemicals made from the products of the cracker. Polyethlene is a derivative of ethylene and is used to make everyday items like plastic bags, cables, and injection moulding. Mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) is also derived from ethylene and is used to make everyday items like fibers (polyester, fleece fabric, upholstery, carpets); polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (plastic food and drink containers, bags); and automotive products (engine coolants and anti-freeze).

One of the final products of the cracker is Polyethylene resin. The resin is actually small pellets. Carlson had a sample of the resin at Wednesday’s session. The pellets were contained in a small Ziploc sandwich bag (the sandwich bag itself is actually an everyday product created by the cracking process). This resin is sold to customers who make products that we use everyday.

“This is so exciting for Western Pennsyvlania, because the companies in the region that use this resin will be able to get a hold of it much easier for less money,” Carlson said.

What About Waste Products?

Carlson said the waste will be minimized.

“Our goal is to use all of the products produced,” he said.

What Will This Place Look Like?

According to Shell’s website, the proposed cracker would be “world-scale.” The site said that world-scale crackers typically produce more than a million tons of ethylene per year.

One thing is for sure, petrochemical plants are typically very large. Shell already owns and operates four petrochemical manufacturing facilities in the U.S., located in Mobile (Alabama) (914 acres), Norco (Louisiana) (700 acres), Geismar (Louisiana) (814 acres), and Deer Park (Texas) (600 acres).

There will be pipes, furnaces, tanks, cooling stations, and many other structures.

“If you like pipes, valves, and vessels, this is the place for you,” Carlson said.

Do You Have More Questions?

If you missed Wednesday’s session and you have unanswered questions about the plant, there is still an opportunity to get answers. Another Beaver County Community Session will be held on Aug 22 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Central Valley High School in Monaca. The community will hear the opinions of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and Beaver County officials on the impact of the proposed Shell plant. The session will feature an educational program which includes a presentation from Shell representatives and comments from local officials who toured similar facilities in Louisiana. Those interested in attending must RSVP at www.pittsburghregion.org or call 412-392-4555, ext. 4572.

 
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