New applications in Saudi ArabiaMarch 1, 2018
Samir Al Jishi, general manager of Sipchem Technology and Innovation Centre, talks to TOGY about the centre’s recent developments and the use of polymers in the energy industry. Inaugurated in 2015, the institution is dedicated to the research of polymer and plastics products in order to boost Saudi Arabia’s downstream sector.
On the centre’s role: “Sipchem produces 2.7 million tonnes per year of various petrochemicals. All of the plants are based on licensed technology developed before the establishment of the centre. The business development department negotiates the licence agreements for production. The role of the centre is to improve the process and products specification in addition to introducing new products and applications.”
On recent activities: “We achieved one development with EVA for stretch hood films. This will be on the market very soon. We also developed PBT that can meet FDA food contact requirements. For XLPE, we developed an LDPE grade that will that meet the customer requirements for the manufacture of medium voltage cables. The centre has also worked on many product improvements and qualifications of products with customers.”
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What is the rationale behind polymerisation research?
We produce three types of base polymers: poly (ethylene-co-vinyl acetate) (EVA), low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and poly (butylene terephthalate) (PBT). Some of the EVA and LDPE is further processed by Sipchem into semi-finished products: LDPE is formulated as cross-linked polyethylene [XLPE], which is then supplied to cable manufacturers, whilst EVA is formed into a cross-linkable sheet that is sold to fabricators of photovoltaic cells.
The centre was primarily established to support product and application development of polymers. We have built up considerable in-house expertise in these materials through the projects carried out at the Innovation Centre.
What are the typical uses of these polymers?
They have a wide range of applications. With EVA, the utility of the product is strongly affected by the vinyl acetate monomer (VAM) content. Today, for EVA, we focus on applications related to shoe manufacturing and film production, which is used in packaging, agriculture and industrial products. We have one downstream plant in Ha’il that is making EVA film for photovoltaic cells. LDPE is mostly used in films whilst PBT is used extensively in injection moulding applications.
What kinds of new developments has the centre worked on?
We achieved one development with EVA for stretch hood films. This will be on the market very soon. We also developed PBT that can meet FDA food contact requirements. For XLPE, we developed an LDPE grade that will that meet the customer requirements for the manufacture of medium voltage cables. The centre has also worked on many product improvements and qualifications of products with customers. We achieved all this in a recession in 18 months. This is a big achievement; however, we are still looking for more.
In what other areas has the centre focused its research?
The centre started to consider chemicals, which are also produced by Sipchem, such as methanol, butanediol and acetic acid. In chemicals, development will be focused more on the process rather than products. We are building our internal capability to handle such issues.
On the external side, we have begun to collaborate with local converters. We started to see what their needs are in two ways: The first is serving Sipchem’s customers. The second channel is the developmental approach through working with converters even if they are not our customers. We are now formulating our centre’s strategy based on Sipchem’s corporate strategy, which was approved late last year.
Are you starting down the road to producing solar power with photovoltaic film?
The photovoltaic or solar power plants requires polysilicon, ingots and the cells. Our EVA film, being produced in Ha’il, is one component of the photovoltaic solar cell. The renewable industry is one of the strategic industries in Saudi Arabia based on the 2030 vision.
Are the polymers used in Saudi Arabia or exported?
All of the polymers produced in Sipchem have local applications. The Sipchem EVA and PBT plants are the first of their type in the kingdom and we are working with our customers to introduce these polymers gradually into the local market.
Will there be a future use for polymer membranes in carbon capture and storage?
We have not investigated this, but Sipchem is already using carbon dioxide in its processes to convert this waste material into useful products. There are big initiatives underway to utilise carbon dioxide in chemicals production. Sipchem and Saudi Aramco Shell Refinery Company (SASREF) have entered into a long-term carbon dioxide supply agreement. The carbon dioxide supplied by SASREF will be utilised by the International Methanol Company.
There are more initiatives coming in which we will see more carbon dioxide being utilised in processing plants rather than being emitted. Our centre is not directly involved in the gas and chemicals in this application, but we do support the related plants in process improvements and trouble shooting.
Is there a heightened awareness of the proper storage, treatment and disposal of polymers in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia has a long history of producing polymers. Waste polymers produced in Sipchem are sold for recycling. However, there is a need at the consumer level to increase awareness of disposal. Dhahran Municipality started a small programme for recycling the waste of individuals. Although we have started to see classification of waste, such as plastic, bottles and so forth, individuals have yet to be educated on this. On a corporate level, we are one of the pioneers in dealing with disposal and waste.
Has the fall in oil prices caused the centre’s importance to rise?
The centre itself is not directly related to oil. Oil may affect some business sectors, but as a research and development centre, we work directly toward the development of products. The importance of the centre has grown through helping Sipchem’s affiliates achieve higher product quality and production efficiency, thereby enhancing the overall business competitiveness.
How important is the centre in helping Sipchem maintain its production?
Sipchem produces 2.7 million tonnes per year of various petrochemicals. All of the plants are based on licensed technology developed before the establishment of the centre. The business development department negotiates the licence agreements for production. The role of the centre is to improve the process and products specification in addition to introducing new products and applications.
Are there other polymers research companies in Saudi Arabia?
There are a few other centres in the kingdom, in addition to Sipchem’ s centre, which belongs to SABIC, Tasnee, and PetroRabigh.
What do you want to see for the next two years for the centre?
More capability in chemicals, extending the relationship with converters and customers, and developing more grades and applications. The centre is expected to play a major role in Sipchem growing and being a sustainable company.
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