Plastics make modern society possible, writes LyondellBasell in its latest Sustainability Report. Yet plastics are also a huge source of controversy – and pollution. Sustainable Plastics talked with Jim Seward, SVP R&D, Technology and Sustainability at LyondellBasell about that company’s efforts to address this issue, and its ambitions for a circular economy for plastics.
One of the more exciting announcements from LyondellBasell this year was the start-up of the company’s small-scale chemical recycling pilot plant, utilising its MoReTec technology in Ferrara, Italy. Can you tell me more about it?
We’re already very active in mechanical recycling and now we are also developing our MoReTec technology, which fits into a suite of what you might refer to as an advanced recycling technology. It’s in the same family as a number of chemical recycling processes; specifically, what we’re trying to do is to find ways to turn used, post-consumer plastic back into chemicals. And in our case, we particularly want to turn it back into feedstocks and raw materials, which we can then feed back into our crackers to be able to make more products – primarily plastics – out of.
Specifically, your own crackers?
Yes, at the moment, we are targeting cracker feedstock – to try to make that circular. Also, I should say, this is a technology we are developing, so it is not commercial today. There are already technologies out there that turn waste plastics into a number of different products, the most basic being energy and fuels. There are also efforts in different parts of the industry, so not just us, to try to really create that circularity and move up the value chain from fuel into chemicals. We are part of that play.
Why did you decide to develop your own technology?
We felt it would be valuable to do so because we see a number of gaps in this space that needed to be filled for this to be a scalable solution that could really benefit us all. We have a strong heritage and competence in process: chemical process, polymer process, catalysis – and that’s really what has defined us as a company. We are one of the leading players in polymer technology in the world.
When we were looking at this area of advanced recycling and circularity, we saw a number of challenges or issues that really be needed to be addressed. One was the question of scale – advanced recycling is happening today, but in quite small units handling 1 to 5 kilotonnes a year, perhaps up to 20 kilotonnes, in some cases. We see an opportunity to get bigger and this will require technology to be developed.
Secondly, we are looking to achieve circularity, essentially by creating a purer, high-value output product. In other words, this would be achieved by moving away from fuel and into lighter hydrocarbons that can be used for the chemical stream rather than the fuel stream.
What is the technology you are using? Is it pyrolysis?
Essentially, we are using a pyrolysis-based technology - but it is a catalysed pyrolysis-based technology. Traditional pyrolysis technologies are not catalysed which means that you don’t have that selectivity of the reaction. A catalyst improves reaction selectivity; it can direct a reaction to yield a particular product.
How energy intensive is chemical recycling and, in that light, how sustainable? And what about the expense?
The scale that we are trying to develop with our advanced recycling technology will mean it will have an improved life-cycle CO2 footprint versus some of these smaller units on a unit basis.. We are planning much bigger units: we’re aiming at 100 kT/pa and maybe even more.
We are also aware that part of the solution will involve demonstrating the CO2 impact of our technology. We think that everything is headed in the same direction: if you can create selectivity, if you can create scale then it’s likely you will also create an improved CO2 footprint, because you’re bringing the temperatures down in the reaction.
Is it expensive?
Again, scale will speak to that. What we modelled and what our targets are, is that it will be competitive with current systems in Europe. Europe has a lot of naphtha-cracking, for example, which is something we do quite a lot of as well, actually, and we believe it will be in that ballpark. The technology is still in development, so we have to see where that lands, but we recognize that it can’t be very expensive or it’s not going to work.
It has to work economically as well as environmentally – and we think that it will.
What about the product feedstock: can it go into cracker together with conventional feedstock?
Initially, we are working on the assumption that we’ll be able – and we’ll need to be able - to run both streams, in the same way as the energy mix at our energy stations. Certainly with crackers being quite large, initially we wouldn’t switch from one day to the next. The transition will be quite gradual. But as we grow, we will obviously back out more and more of the traditional naphtha.
Does this mean you will be adopting a mass balance approach?
Exactly. I think that the whole of this area of advanced recycling relies very much on extremely clear rules of the game around mass balance. I think that mass balance is a really important concept which applies in very many other parts of industries. I think it definitely has a place here, and everybody needs to be very transparent about that.
You’ll need to certify, but I think it’s definitely possible. There are many models out there already where mass balance is being used very effectively – but it is essential to have very clear and transparent rules of the game.
You are currently at pilot scale. When do you think you can scale this? How is the project going?
In broad terms: we want to go to industrial scale – let’s say, operational – towards the middle of the decade. And then assuming that goes well, we would have a platform that would allow us to continue to go further and build more units thereafter.
We were very happy with a very smooth start-up of the pilot unit: that was important, and that’s gone well. We will continue to work and invest there; it’s not a little lab thing.
This is an industrial unit. It’s running safely - obviously very important point – I’m incredibly impressed at what we’ve done in Ferrara, in the middle of COVID. We’ve managed to get this thing built, started and running.
Looking at sustainability in general, when did LyondellBasell as a company really start to formulate its goals in that direction?
It’s quite recent. We made a very conscious decision two or three years ago when we recognised that sustainability needed to become a core of our strategic business development and not a compliance issue. Our CEO Bob Patel has really been leading in this, and we’ve gone very fast. Looking at the wider area of sustainability, I recognise that LyondellBasell is not as developed a company as some others are in all areas. As I say: we really made this strategic shift over the past 2-3 years. However, I would argue that in circularity, we are well up to speed. Circularity is one of the areas that we’re really, really focusing on.