Jump menu

Main content |  back to top

Raising efficiency

Countless everyday products originate from crude oil — from fleeces to antifreeze, computers to carpets. Refineries turn it into the chemical raw material needed to manufacture plastics, textiles and many other products.

The traditional process to make this raw material relies heavily on heat and water. A new process, OMEGA, works more efficiently by using an entirely catalytic chemical reaction to convert almost all of the raw material used – 10% more than average.

Improving chemical reactions

The OMEGA process starts when a liquid chemical, ethylene, combines with pure oxygen. The mixture flows into a giant reactor containing millions of tiny catalysts where it is heated to around 230 °C (500°F).

The catalysts speed up a chemical reaction that turns the oxygen and ethylene into ethylene oxide. The ethylene oxide flows into another reactor containing carbon dioxide (CO2) and a liquid catalyst that accelerates the reaction between the two.

This process produces ethylene carbonate. In the last step the ethylene carbonate flows into another reactor, where it reacts with water to produce mono-ethylene glycol, a key ingredient for plastics.

Cutting water use

Using OMEGA is better for the environment than the standard way of manufacturing mono-ethylene glycol. The process uses 20% less steam because it does not need to convert a lot of water into steam in the final stage. By consuming less water, OMEGA produces less waste water. It also produces less CO2 per tonne of mono-ethylene glycol because it uses less energy.

Bringing economic benefits

The OMEGA process has several economic advantages. An OMEGA plant is cheaper to build because it requires less equipment: the reactor and pipes are smaller because the process uses less water. The catalysts do most of the work. Almost all the raw material – 99.2% compared to 90% conventionally – is converted into the final product so the plant operator can sell more mono-ethylene glycol.

Serving Asia’s market

The Shell Eastern Petrochemicals Complex in Singapore alone manufactures enough MEG in one year using OMEGA to make one polyester shirt for each of the 6.8 billion people on the planet. Two OMEGA plants built and licensed by Shell in South Korea and Saudi Arabia are also well-placed to serve the fast-growing markets for plastics and textiles in Asia, especially China and India.

Going global

Other chemical makers are looking to meet the rising demand for plastics with greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact. Five companies hold licences to use Shell’s OMEGA technology. Qatar Petroleum and Shell are also studying the feasibility of building the world’s largest site to produce mono-ethylene glycol in Qatar, where locally-produced natural gas would provide by-products for the OMEGA process.

Saving energy

Sandwich packaging made with PET

This energy-efficient process could become more widely used to provide the world with the raw material needed to make the everyday items that we take for granted.