Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Polyethylene Production coming to North Dakota

While my homestate of Minnesota remains a frack-free zone (due to Mother Nature's choice to stock us with iron, copper and other minerals rather than even a drop of petroleum), our neighboring state of North Dakota is pretty much ground zero for the effort. And we hear about it a lot since many people have taken the day's drive out there for the good paying jobs. Western North Dakota is not highly populated, so manpower is short. If you can pass a drug test and supply your own housing, you can get a job. (And many hiring managers will say under their breath that they might let one of those conditions slide). Minnesota is also affected by the transportation of the flammable, petroleum liquids along the rail lines in our state. And the sudden increase in demand for the trains causes other logistic nightmares for anyone shipping anything else by rail.

Now comes a report from Plastemart that North Dakota will soon have their own world class polyethylene production facility - a $4 billion dollar investment. $1.5 million metric tonnes a year of HDPE - from North Dakota. That is pretty impressive.

In my mind, it was just a matter of time before this happened, although I've not heard anything previous about it unlike the plant being built in West Virginia to take advantage of the Marcellus shale production. At the same time, I bet that this plant will be far more expensive than the original estimate for many of the reasons I already discussed. The labor to build the plant will need to be imported - there aren't too many pipefitters out there and they are already kept busy with the existing fracking operations. And the housing shortage will only increase. While transporting polyethylene by train is much less risky than transporting petroleum liquids, it is not as efficient. The bulk density of polyethylene is about 0.5 g/cm3, a good fraction less than any hydrocarbon liquids. So that means more strain on the train network.

Looking at the very-long-term picture, at some point fracking production will dry up, and so the question be what happens to the facility. Will it be abandoned or will it continue to operate, albeit with a biobased source of ethylene, such as that produced by dehydration of ethanol? North Dakota isn't a very large corn producer, but over the coming decades, alternative biofeedstocks for ethanol will be developed, including some that could be raised in the dry regions of North Dakota. Either way, I'm prety sure that I will not see that future. It's too many decades down the road. (Yes, fracking will go on that long.)

Previous Years

October 15, 2013 - Turning Plastic Bags into Carbon Nanotubes

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