Shell already provides the technology to make around 40% of the world’s mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) for use in textiles and plastics. It has licensed the new, more efficient process for use in four chemical companies, and in Singapore is using this technology in one of its own plants for the first time.

Huck Poh, former General Manager of the Pulau Bukom manufacturing site, talks about the SEPC development in 2010

Shell combined its own technology with one developed by Mitsubishi to create the OMEGA (Only MEG Advantage) process. Technical advances made it possible to take this process from the laboratory to a plant 50 times as big. The plant covers an area the size of several football fields and is powered by 210 kilometres (130 miles) of electric cable. The plant reached its full capacity within just two weeks and in 2010 was capable of producing 750,000 tonnes of MEG a year – that is 90,000 kilograms every hour.

“We’ve shown it works and is extremely efficient,” says Arthur Rots, Team Lead of the OMEGA design group.

The plant cost considerably less to build than its conventional equivalent. Running costs are lower, partly as the new process captures heat released by chemical reactions and reuses it to power water cooling units.

Giant chemistry set 

The processing plant on the island of Pulau Bukom pumps raw material — ethylene — to the plant on Jurong Island through 4.5 kilometres of pipelines (2.8 miles) below one of Asia’s busiest shipping lanes.

Here the ethylene passes through a steel container where it mixes with pure oxygen. The mixture then enters the giant reactors at the heart of the plant, each weighing about 1,400 tonnes.

Each reactor contains more than 13,000 tubes. Tubes in the reactors contain millions of catalysts. These porous silver-containing beads speed up chemical reactions. They are central to the process of turning raw materials into more valuable products. At 230-260° Celsius (446-500° Fahrenheit) the catalysts accelerate a chemical reaction between oxygen and ethylene to produce ethylene oxide.

Quench section and process units at night
Night shot of the quench units on the ethylene cracker on Pulau Bukom, Singapore

Only advantages 

In the conventional process to make MEG, ethylene oxide would be heated and fed to a reactor with water to ultimately produce the MEG. In the new process, however, the ethylene oxide flows into a reactor with carbon dioxide (CO2) and a clear syrupy liquid catalyst helps convert the mixture into ethylene carbonate. 

The ethylene carbonate enters the second reactor where it reacts with water to produce MEG. The process converts 99.2% of the ethylene oxide in the process into MEG, compared to 90% in the conventional process. This eliminates the cost of storing and shipping any secondary products.

The new process consumes less steam and produces less waste water than a traditional plant with the same capacity. The OMEGA process also produces less CO2 per tonne of MEG.

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