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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction

II The Australian Chemical Industry

III Pharmaceuticals

IV Chemists In Other Industries

V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry
i Plastics processing
ii Phenol - basis of the first plastic
iii Plastics - the first generation
iv Plastics - the second generation - from petrochemicals
v Styrene monomer - the West Footscray petrochemical complex
vi The Botany petrochemical complex
vii The petrochemical complex at Altona
viii CSR - from sugar alcohol to petrochemical OXO alcohol

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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The Botany petrochemical complex

The history of the petrochemical complex at Botany is a further example of the problems of scale in modern industries and of the contribution which local R&D can make to their solution. As international competition toughened, unit costs of labour and capital investment became the constraints to growth, yet growth was needed to offset the disadvantages of smaller plants. It seemed a vicious circle.

In the 1960s, Australia had a healthy industry in basic chemicals, but the new plastics industries overseas were based on petrochemical plants grouped around very large crackers of naphtha. By contrast, in Australia, up to the sixties, ICI Australia's production of PVC and polythene had made do with feedstock available from local resources, ethylene cracked from ethyl alcohol as discussed earlier, and acetylene. These could no longer compete with ethylene from crackers nor could the plants cope with growth. The combined PVC and polythene capacity in Australia was 15,000 tonnes. Overseas hydrocarbons were produced from plants ten times larger, (then) 100,000 to 200,000 tonne ethylene crackers. What the Australian petrochemical industry needed to get to the take-off point was a plant approaching world scale.

Oxychlorination -a new vinyl chloride process:
international success and an Australian plant

Corporate planners dealing with a multiplicity of relatively small markets for the individual plastics and derivatives looked for ways of supplying these from a single cracker, preferably one common raw material, so that the combined demand would reach minimum viable scale for the cracker -100,000 tonnes. Even then the existing products -PVC and polythene -might not provide adequate volume. Planners and research chemists jointly searched for existing processes anywhere in the world, and perhaps, at much longer odds, new routes and/or new products which could be grouped around ethylene or perhaps a cracker producing both ethylene and acetylene -the so-called mixed gas scheme.

Chemical engineers are realists; they wanted to use processes which were well developed, as the acetylene based process was then in Australia. Also, they thought in engineering terms. So they looked for a scheme in which both raw materials, acetylene and ethylene, came from one cracker. The difficulty with this so-called mixed gas scheme was to match the changing market demand for the different gases.

The problem was posed in 1961 in a discussion between plastics technical staff and research staff. A few days later a patent chemist noted in a patent that, given the right catalyst, a similar reaction did proceed with another hydrocarbon in the presence of oxygen. Part of this was really historic schoolboy chemistry, the old Deacon reaction, which everyone knew but no one used any more. The problem was given to a young chemist[120] -would it work with ethylene? It did -but only just well enough to give some hope. Two thermodynamically conflicting reactions proceeding simultaneously required different conditions. The process was viable only if yields were high. Management called for an integrated team study. Physical chemists and chemical engineers examined catalysts, thermodynamics, rate constants, safety aspects, explosive limits, reactor design and materials of construction. A team of more than 20 staff worked on the project. For some time, hopes were high that a basic new route to vinyl chloride, one of the principal building blocks of the world's plastics, had been invented; indeed, the trend towards a single feedstock for the two main mass plastics, PVC and polyethylene, was a world-wide need, the market was growing fast and the opportunity was immense.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Botany Petrochemical Complex

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 702 - 703, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher