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Shell and Dow start up e-cracking furnace experimental unit

Shell and Dow have started up an experimental unit to heat ethylene steam cracker furnaces electrically at the Energy Transition Campus Amsterdam, The Netherlands. This represents a key milestone in the companies’ joint technology program to electrify steam cracking furnaces, bringing the companies one step closer to decarbonizing one of the most carbon-intensive aspects of petrochemical manufacturing.

Steam crackers involve cracking hydrocarbon feedstocks in the presence of steam and at temperatures of between 800° and 870°C to produce the important building blocks ethylene, propylene, butadiene, aromatics and acetylene. Today’s steam crackers rely on fossil fuel combustion to heat their furnaces, making them CO2-intensive.


Side view of the experimental unit

Over the next year, the experimental unit will be used to test a theoretical electrification model developed for retrofitting today’s gas-fired steam cracker furnaces. Data generated by the unit will be used to validate the model and allow the electrification program to advance to the next phase; the design and construction of a multi-megawatt pilot plant, with potential start-up in 2025, subject to investment support.

Using renewable electricity to heat steam cracker furnaces could become one of the routes to decarbonize the chemicals industry. E-cracking furnaces operated using renewable electricity have the potential to reduce 90% of the scope 1 emissions at economically competitive costs with conventional crackers.

Last year, the program was awarded €3.5 million (US$4.2 million) in funding from the Dutch Government and incorporated The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT). The multi-company collaboration brings technical expertise and a common commitment to a low carbon-future. Furthermore, the collaboration aims to support emission reductions required to meet Shell and Dow’s targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.



Per wonderful pieces by The Economist and others this week, you cannot 'only electrify' your way out of a carbon-intense world. The source, distribution, and management supply is simply not there for a double-digit percentage+ increase to all transportation, industrial, and residential, etc., areas. Further, efficiency requires massive capital outlay, especially difficult in times of increasingly scarce financial backing (interest rates, post-covid-ish budgets, etc). Aside, from current world events with energy disruptions, such technology should aspire to be more hybrid, upgradable, and scalable. Not to mention that developing nations cannot hope to integrate such systems.


Economist, Technology Quarterly, June 25, 2022, “ Electrifying everything does not solve the climate crisis, but it is a great start”


For those who do not have an Economist subscription, watch Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor here:


An e-cracking unit is a GREAT idea.  If you can store the physical inputs and outputs, you can use it as a dump load for the grid.  This might be a great way to use surpluses of wind and PV power in productive ways and re-stabilize the grid.


Interesting.  The Aircraft Reactor Experiment reached 860°C output temperature in steady-state operation, sufficient to run an ethylene steam cracking furnace.

We're pretty much there already, we just haven't put the parts together yet.

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