Green technologies for the “Swiss army knife” of the industry
Whether used in mattresses or refrigerators, the global polyurethane market is growing. The MOL Group from Hungary is looking to enter this market and is relying on the HPPO process from Evonik Active Oxygens and thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions to ensure the production process is gentle on resources. Compared to common manufacturing processes, the HPPO process has lower CO2 emissions.
If you wake up and stretch in bed, go for a run and then grab milk from the fridge for your coffee and drive in to work, you will have already come into contact with polyurethane several times. This sought-after material can be used in a diverse range of applications – from day-to-day products such as mattresses or sneaker soles to building insulation, to coatings and paints all the way up to applications in furniture and vehicle construction.
Polyurethane is a robust and durable material that contributes to the longevity of products, thereby contributing to saving resources. For example:
- When insulating houses, polyurethane improves energy efficiency and reduces CO2 emissions because less gas, oil and electricity have to be used for heating or cooling.
- As an insulating material in refrigerators, polyurethane reduces electricity consumption. By cooling, food can be kept longer.
- Thanks to polyurethanes in car seats and bodies, lighter vehicles can be built, which reduces fuel consumption. They also provide comfort and safety by insulating car occupants from road noise and heat and cushioning the impact in the event of an accident.
Increasing demand for energy-saving lightweight materials
It is therefore no wonder that demand for this material has been increasing significantly for years. “The global polyurethane market is growing faster than the world economy,” confirms Uwe Kuehner, Vice President Strategic Projects at Evonik Active Oxygens. The reasons for growth are global megatrends, such as growing populations and increasing mobility, while simultaneously attempting to increase the energy efficiency. The quality of life in developing countries, particularly in Asia, is increasing, which is resulting in greater demand for refrigerators or air conditioning units with insulating layers made from polyurethane foams. Correspondingly, the demand for polyurethane foams (PU foams) in high-quality furniture, car seats or particularly durable cold-foam mattresses is growing.
As a result, manufacturers around the world are expanding their production capacities for polyurethane, as well as for its precursors, propylene oxide and polyols: “Polyols are some of the most sought-after petrochemical products today, as they are the starting materials for polyurethane, the ‘Swiss army knife’ of the industry,” says György Szűcs, Group Investment and Downstream Strategic Projects Director at the Hungarian oil, gas, petrochemical and retail corporation MOL Group. According to their own calculations, the MOL Group is predicting global demand for polyols will grow by 3.4 percent annually to 2025.
Polyol plant in Hungary will begin operations in 2022
This global demand has resulted in the MOL Group making the largest single organic investment in its history: the independent international oil, gas, petrochemical and retail company is investing 1.3 billion euros in the construction of a new polyol complex in Tiszaújváros in northern Hungary. “The plant will use the most advanced, safest and environmentally friendly technology currently available in order to manufacture this diverse material,” says Szűcs from MOL. “This is one of our major steps on the way to deliver on MOL’s ‘Shape Tomorrow 2030+’ Strategy that aims to diversify away from fossil fuels and therefore to maintain more sustainable operations.”
MOL commissioned thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions (tkIS), a company specializing in the design, construction and service of industrial plants and systems, with the construction of the large Polyol Complex in Tiszaújváros. Polyol technology is provided by tklS and the plant modules in the complex were manufactured in Thailand transported to Hungary by ship and then put together at the site, just like a huge LEGO set. The complex, which has been built on MOL Petrochemicals site, is intended to begin operations in 2022 and convert 200,000 tons of propylene oxide into polyols and propylene glycols each year.
Development of new polyol grades
In addition, MOL opened a new research and development centre for polyols in Százhalombatta, about 200 kilometres away from Tiszaújváros. The centre will conduct tests of the physicochemical properties of polyols, as well as laboratory tests and application trials of polyurethane foams made from them. By July 2022, at least 10 polyol grades will be developed in the newly built facility.
The company also plans to cooperate with the laboratories of several Hungarian universities and independent research institutions. These collaborations should help to further develop the methodologies used in the polyol R&D centre and expand the universities’ knowledge base.
The HPPO process: efficient and sustainable
A significant part of the production process at MOL is the “Hydrogen Peroxide to Propylene Oxide (HPPO)” process, developed together by Evonik Active Oxygens and thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions. The process uses hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂) with a specific quality level to oxidize propene to PO, at a comparably low steam and electricity demand. The main reaction products are propylene oxide and water that can be biologically purified.
A catalyst developed by Evonik for the HPPO process is at the core of this method. The catalyst ensures that propene is converted to propylene oxide at high conversion and selectivity – and there are no other appreciable by-products. This helps HPPO stand out compared to traditional production processes for propylene oxide where large amounts of co-products and by-products are generated and which must be sold and disposed of at considerable cost. “Furthermore, the investment costs and energy use for traditional production processes are also rather high,” says Kuehner.
Benefits of HPPO technology:
- No co-product to be sold
- Specially developed, highly selective catalyst from Evonik
- Lower investment costs
- Efficient use of raw materials
Contrastingly, the HPPO procedure only requires an upstream plant to manufacture hydrogen peroxide. “The most efficient process to manufacture propylene oxide from propene and H₂O₂ is our HPPO process,” the expert summarizes. “We are convinced of this and also have the data to back it up.“ At the end of 2020, Evonik AO performed life cycle assessments (LCA) in which they quantified the carbon footprint for various products and technologies. The analyses are based on accepted assessment approaches for CO2-equivalent emissions at different product manufacturing phases (“cradle-to-gate” assessment). These analyses show that the HPPO process can save more than ten percent of CO2 emissions compared to alternative PO manufacturing processes, depending on the location.
Making the manufacturing process more sustainable
Evonik AO is increasingly taking the origin of the raw materials into account in order to make the entire manufacturing process more sustainable. After all: “The smaller the ‘CO2 backpack’ of these materials, the lower the total CO2 baggage of the propylene oxide,” says Kuehner.
However, the possibilities of reducing CO2 emissions are by no means exhausted. “There are numerous efforts to establish other processes to derive propene from sustainable sources, such as bio-based raw materials or on the basis of used cooking fat or agricultural waste,” explains the expert. Evonik AO has already converted its plants various regions to run on green electricity that is used as efficiently as possible. Further potential can also be derived from the use of green hydrogen.
According to Jürgen Schemel, Head of Technology, Innovation & Sustainability at Petrochemicals and Polymers at tkIS, as the second HPPO licensor, is also focusing on further reducing the HPPO energy footprint, by “optimizing raw material consumption and developing tailor-made integrated plant concepts in a holistic approach.” Recycled plastics, he says, is one of tkIS’s initiatives on a broader scale, not just focusing on HPPO and downstreams.
On the path to a green value creation chain
All three, Evonik, tkIS and MOL in Hungary view innovation and sustainability as the core topics for the future. Evonik Active Oxygens’ LCA analysis shows that the cutting-edge refinery complexes that belong to the company – and from which the polyol plant procures propylene, hydrogen and steam – have a comparatively small carbon footprint. According to Kuehner, they “are fossil-fuel based, but are very, very efficient.”
With its polyol production capabilities, the company is not only creating a product that saves energy but is also relying on the HPPO process as the “most environmentally friendly technology” that currently exists. “MOL will be the only company in Central and Eastern Europe with an integrated value chain that extends from crude oil extraction to polyol production,” says György Szűcs, Group Investment and Downstream Strategic Projects Director. “The production process is environmentally friendly, also thanks to the sustainable HPPO technology from Evonik and thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions.”