Jos Keurentjes (AkzoNobel): green base chemicals production to slow down because of shale gas

Jos Keurentjes
Jos Keurentjes

Will shale gas  – soon to be in abundant supply – become a threat to the green chemical industry? Jos Keurentjes (AkzoNobel) judges it too early to make a verdict. (This is the fourth article in our series on shale gas. We published earlier articles on 9 September, 17 September and 22 September).

‘I think it would make a difference in the production of base chemicals,’ says Jos Keurentjes, recently appointed director Technology and Open Innovation at AkzoNobel. ‘On the other hand, shale gas is mainly of interest in the United States, and will have its main impact on substitution there. In particular where ethylene is concerned. Shale gas contains a large fraction of ethane, easily processed into ethylene, and it will therefore make some difference in polyethylene production. I cannot judge when, but I can tell that many pathways based on renewables (ethanol) will slow down.’

Too early to call
‘But this concerns feedstock that cannot easily be transported, like ethylene, and therefore I feel that the impact will be moderate. In the US the impact will be more important than in Europe, but there the biobased economy (in particular heavily subsidized biofuels) has progressed much further and much faster than here. As yet, I do not have a clear judgment on future developments in Europe, but I do know that biobased industry as a whole, including renewable fuels, would have been in great trouble if this new energy source would have come to the market ten years earlier. Right now, the development of the green economy is in full swing, and the race is too early to call. Quite an interesting question, but the outcome is by no means clear yet.’

‘Even in the US, because so much money has been invested – subsidized as well – in biofuels. A sizeable amount in the first generation, but now the second generation is entering the market. And keep in mind that the greenhouse effect may be mitigated somewhat by substitution of shale gas for coal – in a direct application or as a fuel – but certainly not solved. Nowadays that is an argument, albeit not universally decisive. We at AkzoNobel prefer sustainability, provided that it should be cost-effective.’

In the higher brackets of the value pyramid
‘There is another aspect. In petrochemical industry, there is a long-standing shift from propylene to ethylene. As a result, propylene has become scarce and more expensive. As the pathways through ethane-ethylene from shale gas will become cheaper, this scarcity will become less of a problem. It will produce more pressure on green chemical pathways to propylene derivatives.  Much will depend on the ethanol price: present fuel price is € 600 per ton, but for chemical applications the price should be half of that. Ethylene from shale gas is even cheaper, and that will no doubt put pressure on second generation biofuels. And on chemical industry.’

But chemical industry has other options. For example decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen, followed by production of methanol from hydrogen and (cheap) CO2. That is what they do in Iceland, where electricity is almost for free. And cheap carbon dioxide is not on the market everywhere. Returning to biobased chemical industry: ‘Even with cheap shale gas, there will remain opportunities for a green chemical industry, in the higher brackets of the value pyramid.’

Jos Keurentjes finally does come to some sort of conclusion: ‘Call me again in a few years’ time, then we will have a clearer judgment.’

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