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Making plastic from natural gas

September 18, 2003, 16:40 CEST

The first use of natural gas as a feedstock for plastics production could be achieved by a collaboration between Statoil, Lurgi and Borealis.

This partnership aims to use methanol – an intermediate derivative of natural gas – in producing propylene, the raw material for making polypropylene.

An important product in the plastic industry, polypropylene is normally produced from naphtha or propane.

Success in utilising methanol could open a completely new market for natural gas, especially as oil reserves decline, says Staale Førre Jensen.

He works in the methanol-to-propylene (MTP) project, where the three companies are cooperating to demonstrate the planned process.

A demonstration unit has been located at Statoil’s Tjeldbergodden methanol plant in mid-Norway.

“We’re currently verifying the MTP process for converting natural gas to plastic feedstock for use in the petrochemical and polymer industries,” says Mr Jensen.

Lurgi has produced propylene with the aid of this method and Borealis – owned 50 per cent by Statoil – has converted it to polypropylene to make specially designed plastic cups.

According to Mr Jensen, this is the first time polypropylene products have been manufactured with methanol as the feedstock.

Demand for propylene is expected to increase in coming years, he notes.

“The MTP process could open interesting opportunities for using natural gas without direct access to markets, via large-scale production of methanol and conversion to plastic.”

It could also help to reduce the difficulties caused by pressure on margins in the olefin industry.

This reflects the fact that feedstock prices traditionally follow the cost of crude, while prices in the end-user market are set by other commodities and demand mechanisms.