The petrochemicals industry in the Middle East has experienced spectacular growth over the past 30 years. The sector witnessed growth of 3.7 per cent in 2016, reaching 150 million tonnes of capacity and outpacing the global average growth of 2.2 per cent. That same year, projects worth $13bn were announced, according to the Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association (GPCA).
This growth is fuelled by numerous factors such as demand for gasoline and jet fuels, and rapid industrial development. In addition, the increasing use of polyethylene in the packaging industry is putting more pressure on ethylene production.
But with cheap feedstock supply expected to come to an end in most Middle Eastern states over the next few years, chemicals producers looking to expand domestically face challenges.
Today, economies of scale are driving a need for new complexes to meet the demand for petrochemicals. Existing complexes that are too large or difficult to retool will rely on technologies that use new catalysts and processes. Within this context, the localisation of the petrochemicals industry becomes an imperative, as it allows individual countries to pursue greater domestic content in manufacturing.
This takes many forms, such as developing domestic capacity to produce fuels, chemicals and other products. It also means that, in some circumstances, countries with larger growth opportunities may require an increase in the domestic output of catalysts and equipment.
The Middle East presents diverse challenges for the efficient conversion of crude oil into fuels and petrochemicals. At their core, these challenges are chemistry problems on a large scale. If at the heart of every project there is a process technology, then the lifeblood of every process technology is the catalyst. The role of the catalyst cannot be overstated. From an oily soup, catalysts can produce a range of valuable fuels and chemicals. For its part, Honeywell UOP has been involved in several significant projects in the Middle East – helping to expand downstream capabilities through advanced process technologies.
In this context, having the right technology in place enables manufacturers to generate more value from hydrocarbons. Smart and connected technologies allow them to produce cleaner fuels and petrochemicals to make plastic films, resins and fibres. These solutions produce less waste and allow the flexibility to adjust to changing feedstock availability.
The petrochemicals industry requires its leaders to be highly dynamic to stay ahead of the curve. As refineries and petrochemicals plants become more complex, having access to the right technologies and digital expertise unlocks new opportunities for operational efficiencies and profitability.
Several examples of this can already be seen here in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been making significant investments in its petrochemicals industry over the past decade, accounting for 64.8 per cent of the region’s entire production capacity in 2015, according to figures from the GPCA.
King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is working on developing new catalytic processes that allow refiners and aromatics producers to increase production of paraxylene from a wider range of feedstocks. The university’s efforts support Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attempts to diversify its economy by expanding its downstream industries.
Elsewhere in the region, Kuwait Integrated Petroleum Industries Company is using a range of process technologies for the expansion of its refining and petrochemicals complex at Al-Zour, south of Kuwait City. The project includes a major residual fluid catalytic cracking complex with ethylene and propylene recovery, and Honeywell UOP technology is being used to produce low sulphur gasoline. Liquefied petroleum gas is also being treated to make clean-fuels blending components using two Honeywell UOP Merox units.
In Egypt, meanwhile, the Sidi Kerir Petrochemicals Company is producing propylene using technology that leverages catalytic dehydrogenation to convert propane to propylene. The C3 Oleflex technology from Honeywell UOP is designed to deliver low energy consumption and low emissions, minimising the impact on the environment. In addition, the fully recyclable catalyst system’s independent reaction and regeneration sections enable steady-state operations, operational flexibility, and a high on-stream factor.
Looking ahead, the message is clear: Middle Eastern petrochemicals producers can no longer rely on cheap feedstock and must find other ways to maintain their competitiveness. By enhancing their commercial and operational capabilities, producers can take vital major steps toward advancing plant operations. And technology is a key factor driving these advances.
In addition to the choice of the right petrochemicals process solutions, connected processes are expected to have a significant impact on many areas of the petrochemicals industry and have the potential to change value chains by leading to higher product yield and increased on-stream efficiency.
By using cutting-edge, connected solutions, manufacturers can use advanced analytics to extract operational information from the large amounts of unstructured data that they generate. This information can then be used to improve how plants are run and to make better-informed and speedier decisions across the full range of a company’s business processes.
Working with customers from across the region, we are already seeing this change happening. And, considering the ambitious spirit of this region, its infinite thirst for excellence, and its future generation of engineers, it is more than likely that the next breakthroughs in petrochemicals science will be developed right here in the Middle East.
About the author
Jim Moshi is the regional general manager of Honeywell UOP in the Middle East
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