Global demand for the chemical ingredients to make many everyday items could nearly double by 2030. The biggest growth – up to 60% – will come in Asia*. At a chemicals plant on Bukom Island, about five kilometres south of Singapore's main island, efforts are under way to meet this soaring demand. A major drive to increase efficiency and install new equipment has significantly boosted production.

The chemical plant is part of the Shell Eastern Petrochemicals Complex (SEPC) opened in 2010. The plant converts, or cracks, molecules into chemicals including ethylene, a colourless gas which is a key ingredient for paint, washing liquids and synthetic fabrics. Raw materials for the plant are supplied by neighbouring refinery which can process up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day. The refinery also makes a variety of fuels. 

Much ethylene produced on Bukom is piped beneath the sea to nearby Jurong Island, to another Shell chemicals plant which is part of SEPC, or to customers’ own plants located on the island. In 2015, Shell’s Jurong Island plant announced it had more than doubled its production of high-purity ethylene oxide (HPEO) and ethoxylates at its site. This allows the site to meet rising demand in Asia for key ingredients that go into products such as pillows, recyclable plastic bottles, refrigerator coolants and smartphones, and also into everyday items like detergents, shampoo and body wash.

“It was like renovating a vast restaurant kitchen.”

Upgrading the ethylene cracker plant at Bukom has added 20% to production capacity, now over a million tonnes a year. New furnaces and heating coils have made the conversion process more efficient. While the renovation work went on, the nearby refinery kept running.

The vast project involved the use of 100 new and modified pieces of equipment, nearly 2,000 tonnes of steel, over 200 kilometres of cables, and 40km of piping. It employed up to 5,000 people mainly from countries in the region.

One challenge was replacing over 150 heating coils, each 20 metres long, inside a furnace squeezed between two others still in operation. Engineers temporarily installed a giant air-conditioning system to keep workers cool as the heat reached 40°C in Singapore’s humid climate.

“It was like renovating a restaurant kitchen for two years while food is constantly being prepared and served,” said Hooi Hong Tan, Shell General Manager Downstream Projects East. “We needed to close the kitchen for as little time as possible to avoid hungry customers.” 

* Source: McKinsey & Company

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