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Quench units on the ethylene cracker, Pulau Bukom

Night shot of the ‘quench’ units on the ethylene cracker on Pulau Bukom, Singapore

The 100% Shell-owned ethylene cracker complex (ECC) started up in March 2010.

The cracker complex will produce 800,000 tonnes of ethylene per annum; 450,000 tonnes of propylene; and 230,000 tonnes of benzene.

The cracker products provide the basic building blocks of the modern petrochemical industry. Take these key raw materials away and our cars, homes, work places and schools would all look very different.

The olefins and aromatics from the cracker will be used primarily for downstream chemical plants located on Jurong Island, including the Shell mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) plant. The availability of these additional feedstocks will support the growth and diversification of Singapore’s chemicals cluster.

The applications of ethylene are numerous. Polyethylenes account for more than 50% of world ethylene demand. The primary use of polyethylene is in film applications for packaging, carrier bags and trash liners. Other applications include injection moulding, pipe extrusion, wire and cable sheathing and insulation.

Global demand for ethylene has grown by almost 5% each year over the past 25 years, a level of growth which is over three times higher than the increase in demand for crude oil.

More than 60% of the world's production of propylene is used to make polypropylene but it is also a key component of countless end use products. Examples include automobile lights, disk brake pads and bumpers; foams for bedding and furniture; insulation; bullet-proof windows; and plywood and laminates.

Benzene is an important basic chemical. It is widely used in the industrial sector, where it is combined and processed with other basic chemicals, such as ethylene or propylene, to produce countless consumer goods. From mobile phones to DVDs, from car headlights to high-performance skis, many everyday products can trace their beginnings back to benzene.

A butadiene extraction unit is in the process of starting up. It will take its feed from the cracker to produce 155,000 tonnes of butadiene a year. Butadiene is a core material for the production of synthetic rubbers, used for example, in car tyres. Some carpet-backings, computer casings and road surfaces are also derived from butadiene.

Raffinate-1 (a mixture of C4s) is also produced as a by-product of the butadiene unit. Raffinate-1 components are used in the manufacture of a variety of polymers that go into sealing compounds and adhesives for plastic products, protective coatings and cable insulating materials. Other uses include butyl rubber and fuel components. Any surplus raffinate-1 can be recycled back to the cracker.

Cracking is the process of breaking down large molecules into smaller ones at very high temperatures. Almost any hydrocarbon feedstock can be used in an ethylene cracker. The trick is to design the cracker to take a range of feedstocks so that you can vary the feed according to availability, price and other factors.

Lummus is the main technology provider for the ethylene cracker, and is licensing its technology to Shell.

The cracker is designed for feedstock flexibility so that it can process various types of feedstock, ranging from liquefied petroleum gas to heavy liquid hydrocarbons. This flexibility can help to maximise returns as economics shift between hydrocarbon streams, and importantly, it will provide greater security of supply for our customers.

The cracker is strategically located adjacent to the Shell Pulau Bukom Refinery, which has been modified to enable it to supply the cracker with feedstock and to absorb relevant by-product stream into the refinery blending pool.

'Shell Heavy Feed Technology' is the innovation behind the ability to crack a range of heavy feedstocks. This proprietary technology ensures the right conditions to facilitate the cracking process in the furnace.

A new cryogenic ethylene jetty is designed to load and discharge refrigerated ethylene to and from ethylene carriers. The new jetty and storage facility is the first cryogenic terminal for Shell in Singapore, and one of a few fully Shell owned and operated ethylene jetties around the world.

One of the main distillation columns is over 100 metres tall, the equivalent height of 26 stacked double decker buses. It weighs just under 1,000 tonnes. To minimise cost and reduce the need for scaffolding activities, the column was ‘pre-dressed’ with piping, platforms, insulation etc before lifting it into place. Many columns were raised in this way.