Thursday, October 11, 2012

Will innovative ethylene process create a supply and value chain reaction?

by Eric Carlson, CPP

Recent headlines about Honeywell’s new one-step conversion process from natural gas (methane) to the monomer ethylene (also known as ethene) may not grab your attention right away; but, don't be too quick to dismiss this recent innovation. This little, symmetrical molecule is more integral to your professional and personal supply chain than you may think.

Ethylene Molecule

Ethylene has many uses, both direct and indirect. For instance, ethylene gas is used to promote the ripening of fruits and vegetables during transport, storage, and distribution. Across the global food supply chain, ethylene ripening has become a standard protocol that is critical to the regular supply of fragile fruits and vegetables. Ethylene is also the precursor for a variety of other molecules, such as:
  • Styrene which is most often used as polystyrene in packaging foam and insulation; 
  • Ethylene oxide, a precursor for Ethylene Glycol (i.e. antifreeze); and 
  • Ethylene Glycol, a precursor for polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) which is used extensively in beverage bottles and as "polyester" in fibers. 

For those of us in the packaging world, we are most familiar with ethylene as a base monomer for many polymers. Polyethylene (PE) is one of the most common polymers and it is used for making and packaging a wide variety of products.  PE has many different properties, so it comes in a number of forms and configurations.  The density-based categories range from ultra high to ultra low with about 8-10 categories in between. We often see low density PE (LDPE) and high density PE (HDPE) used in food and CPG packaging, such as bread bags and milk jugs.

Current ethylene processing is an energy-intensive and indirect method, requiring repeated heating and quenching steps that produce many chemical compounds. The new Honeywell process appears to use a more direct route from methane to ethylene using less energy. With the cost of natural gas at an all-time low and the U.S.’s abundant supply of this raw material, this is good news! The Honeywell process could hold the line on price increases related to packaging for many products that we make (and buy) every day.

Honeywell’s Gautam said, "The new technology would be cost effective even if natural gas prices rise much higher. It could become a polymer supply-and-value-chain-reaction."

So, not only does ethylene keep us clothed and fed, but it has the potential to significantly impact today's supply chains.  Pretty amazing for one simple molecule, huh?  What implications do you think this breakthrough process will have in your supply chain?

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