Middle East Revolts and Chemicals Part II
Mar03

Middle East Revolts and Chemicals Part II

Here’s an interesting statistic, traffic through the Suez Canal increased in January 2011 versus the same month in 2010. Some 1,485 vessels passed through the canal in January 2010, versus 1,418 the year before. Tonnage increased from 66,440 in 2010 to 75,501. However, this might not be all that telling. The protests began on January 25. So the statistics only cover the first, and least intense, week of the uprising. The Suez Canal Authority hasn’t yet come out with statistics for February, which would be more instructive. (BTW, the Suez Canal Authority keeps annual statistics on the kinds of cargo passing through the canal, including chemicals.) Also, the image was taken from marinetraffic.com, where you can track traffic headed to and from the canal on the Mediterranean, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Looks like the transponders are off during the passage itself. There is another consequence of the unrest of the Middle East that I overlooked in the last post. That of BASF. Melody Voith, who is writing about BASF’s earnings for the next issue of C&EN, points out that analysts were quite interested in the Libyan operations of BASF’s Wintershall oil and gas unit. Wintershall shuttered production in Libya last week. The German military airlifted 21 German employees out of the country, leaving 368 local staff to, in a very close to literal sense, mind the fort. According Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Logan, the operations produce about 100,000 barrels per day. However, despite those high numbers, he and BASF don’t see a substantial impact to BASF earnings. A high, 93%, tax rate and the Gazprom minority stake in the operations whittle €1.3 billion in EBIT down to only €70 million in net income. “With respect to Libya,” chairman Jürgen Hambrecht said in a press release “BASF hopes that the situation will calm down soon.” Good luck with...

Read More

New Plastic Coming To A Liquor Store Near You

If you ever purchased the big plastic bottles of vodka or whiskey on the bottom shelf of your local liquor store, you may have noticed something. No, not the hangovers that pulsate agony in your temples with every beat of your throbbing heart. Something that happens before you get to that point: no proper handles. Some have pinch handles; most of the others, you have to grab around the neck. This is because such bottles, like your soda bottles, are made with polyethylene terephthalate using a stretch blow molding process: Here an example of the process that doesn’t yield handles. Enter Eastman Chemicals' new copolyester, Aspira EN177. Eastman says this resin provides PET-like clarity and gloss. But it can be processed in the kinds of extrusion blow molding machines that make milk jugs and motor oil containers. It thus allows for handles and other features. “Co-polyesters can have the same shelf appeal as glass,” says Sam Glover, Eastman’s market development manager for food and consumer packaging at Eastman. Here’s an example of extrusion blow molding: Eastman isn't saying exactly what the polymer exactly is chemically. It is in the same family as its Eastar brand. And generally speaking, Eastman copolyesters are copolymers of purified terephthalic acid or dimethyl terephthalate with a...

Read More

Chemicals As Seen On TV

Watching cable television you may have noticed the following commercial. It is always neat to see the chemical industry in the popular media. It is neater to impress your friends and family with what you know about the chemistry that appears on television. They might not be so interested. I tried rousing my little girl out of bed when the commercial came on. “Come on, Daddy, I have school tomorrow,” was her response. No fun at all. Anyhow, if you are curious: The Sasol-Huntsman plant is a maleic anhydride joint venture in Moers-Meerbeck, Germany. It has 60,000 metric tons of capacity, but it is being expanded by 45,000 metric tons in a project that will be completed next year. That would explain the giant thing rolling down the street. The plant is on the Neiderrhein. I don’t know why it wasn’t floated in via barge. Maybe the Neiderrhein isn’t deep enough to handle the displacement of such a big heavy thing. Maybe there were too many things in the way on the shore near the...

Read More

Methanex Move Bodes Well For Regional Chemicals

Another sign that the North American chemical industry is getting its groove back is news from Methanex that it is restarting a methanol facility in Medicine Hat, Alberta, that has been idle since 2001. The company says low natural gas prices in North America have made the site competitive again. The company plans to restart the unit next year at a cost of $40 million. Now, I would normally consider methanol and fertilizers a little far afield of what I would call "the chemical industry". However, methanol and fertilizer makers led the charge away from North America a decade ago, and opted instead to build capacity in natural gas rich areas like Trinidad. North American ethylene makers followed with closures and a rush to the Middle East. The reversal is an indication that natural gas from shale has reversed a downward trend for the North American petrochemical industry. Then again, there are the ominous signs that the NIMBY people will scuttle the whole...

Read More

Thoughts On An Iranian Explosion

According to the Iranian News Agency, there was an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Kharg that killed four workers on Saturday. The accident, according to the report, was set off by high pressure in a central boiler. A Reuters report, citing a local governor, agreed on basic details but fingered a gas leak for the blast. Iran’s National Petrochemical Co. has ambitious plans to develop the sector involving the construction of dozens of interconnected world-scale petrochemical plants. If that wasn’t enough, NPC buys designs from foreign engineering firms, but undertakes the construction all by itself. Partly this is due to sanctions against Iran; partly it is because one of the objectives of its development program is to create domestic capabilities for sophisticated engineering. The complexity of the development project plus the go-it-alone approach has led to countless delays and troubles for the Iranian petrochemical sector. This is a big reason why we are still waiting for a supply driven downturn in the petrochemical industry that was supposed to occur several years ago. When I first heard about the disaster, I figured that it might be related to Iran’s struggles in petrochemicals. After all, it is common for chemical plant explosions to occur when they are being taken offline for maintenance. The change of state of startup and idling are dangerous periods for plant operators. Similarly, most airline accidents happen when aircraft are taking off or landing. It seemed plausible to me that the accident occurred while some new plant was starting up. That reasonable hypothesis, however, doesn’t seem supported by the actual evidence. Figuring out what is going on in the Iranian petrochemical sector always involves a little detective work. Years ago, NPC had plans to build an ethylene cracker and an ethylene glycol plant in Kharg. However, NPC decided, because of feedstock availability, to build it in Assaluyeh instead. Coincidentally, that plant seems to have officially started up yesterday. So, there is no plant that I know of that is starting up about now in Kharg. So what could the reports be referring to? There is a methanol plant that started up in Kharg years ago. Also, the mainstream media tends to throw around the word “petrochemical” broadly. The term could be referring any number of natural gas and petroleum processing plants on Kharg...

Read More

What You Need To Know About Vuvuzelas

1) They are made out of high-density polyethylene. Vuvuzela Documentary 2) “Apparently 90% of the vuvuzelas in South Africa are made in China, where they are sold at a wholesale price of approximately US$ 0.29 each.” Jorge O. Bühler-Vidal, director of North Brunswick, N.J.-based Polyolefins Consulting. 3) If you want to break into the vuvuzela racket, German machinery maker Arburg can help you. 4) They are awesome. Author @ Work BTW, I paid $10 for mine on Ferry St. in Newark, N.J. I would have shelled out $20 if I had...

Read More