The ethane that Project ONE will convert into ethylene is a by-product of shale gas extraction in the United States. The ethane is extracted from the natural gas which is used for heating in the United States, among other things.
Thanks to this ethane, and to state-of-the-art production techniques, Project ONE’s CO2 emissions will be less than half those of comparable installations (these run mainly on oil (naphtha) or coal). This will allow us to meet the growing demand for ethylene and propylene worldwide, with much lower emissions than if we were dependent on oil.
In that context, reference is also sometimes made to methane emissions from shale gas extraction. However, shale gas also scores better than naphtha in this respect. New research shows that there is a 0.27 percent loss of methane during the extraction of gas and oil in the North Sea, while this is between 0.06 percent and 0.04 percent for American producers of shale gas, such as EQT, Antero and Range Resources.
In addition, the supply of ethane from conventional natural gas extraction in the North Sea is depleting. Ethane as a by-product of shale gas extraction is available and can be valorized by the chemical industry as a raw material for ethylene production. Previously, it was often flared off (burned at source) because it had no commercial use and because of its high calorific properties, it had to be isolated from the methane gas massively used for heating in the USA. Naphtha (crude oil) is an alternative to ethane. A comparison of ethylene production ‘from well to fence’ based on naphtha versus ethane shows that the latter has a footprint that is substantially lower than that of naphtha.
Today, there is no fully-fledged biological alternative to ethane. At least 2.5 million tons of ethanol is needed to produce one and a half million tons of ethylene. By way of comparison: sugar beets produce 5000 liters of ethanol per hectare or 3.95 metric tons of ethanol/hectare. In other words, 633 000 ha of sugar beet are needed to feed an ethane cracker to produce one and a half million ethylene. According to Statbel data, the Flemish Region had 622 000 ha of agricultural land at its disposal in 2019. This integral area would not be sufficient on its own and would mean that this land could not be used for food production.
In time, for example, propane from biodiesel could become an alternative to propylene production. Project ONE could use this as feedstock. But in order to provide Project ONE with sufficient biopropane, for example, you would have to plant at least 7,500 km2 of land, that is more than half of Flanders, with rapeseed. Given the unavailability of such quantities, biodiesel is currently not a robust alternative.