With its new Propanol 2 production unit in Bay City, Texas, USA, OXEA is opening up new business opportunities and supporting its customers who want to do business in a more environmentally friendly way. To achieve this, OXEA has been producing additional amounts of n-propanol and n-propyl acetate for so-called Propyls since July 2018. These are used in packaging printers to massively lower the consumption of solvents and thus reduce any burden on the planet. To convince the highest possible number of printers to switch over to Propyls, OXEA has successfully performed field tests and is providing intensive consultation in all parts of the world.
Chip bags, diaper packaging bags, coffee pods, … for every conceivable product, printers all over the globe turn thousands of miles of roll stock into millions of colorful packages every day. At the same time, they create vast quantities of ozone, which is emitted into the air and harmful to our climate. This is because a large portion of these gigantic production volumes use printer inks that contain conventional solvents such as ethanol and ethyl acetate. Like all solvents, these evaporate and emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that, in light of the ever-tighter regulations worldwide for printers, are becoming more of a problem than ever before. So, eliminating their use is on the agenda. But how can this be achieved?
100,000 metric tons of opportunities
The answer to this question can be found in the USA: in Bay City, Texas, to be precise. After years of construction, the OXEA Propanol 2 unit went into service in the middle of 2018 and is one of the world’s most modern production facilities. The new unit is one of the largest investments in the history of OXEA and plays a leading role in the company’s growth and sustainability strategy. The reason: with Propanol 2, OXEA can produce around 100,000 metric tons of additional n-propanol every year, a large portion of which is processed further to create n-propyl acetate. This substance and mixture both fall under the term Propyls. Propyls can replace ethanol and ethyl acetate in the printing industry one to one. At the same time, they are clearly a more economical and sustainable alternative. By switching from conventional solvents to Propyls, packaging printers can instantly reduce their consumption of solvents and printing ink by up to 30%.
With Propanol 2, OXEA can produce around 100,000 metric tons of additional n-propanol every year.
Comprehensive risk analysis and the most modern environmental technology
Propanol 2 enables OXEA to provide new opportunities for marketing environmentally friendly products, with the potential to boost demand. The unit also shows how sustainable engineering can lower resource consumption and minimize any potential arisks.
“At the very start of our planning, we broke down the facilities into 50 systems on paper and analyzed every single one,” explains Senthil Kumar, Environmental Health & Safety Manager North America at OXEA. “We then took the results and transferred them to a risk matrix,” adds Tim Allen, Operations Manager in Bay City. “This meant that we could quickly identify inacceptable risk potential and safely eliminate these risks by taking the right steps.”
To avoid volatile emissions, for instance, the project team chose to install sealless pumps. This makes Propanol 2 a completely closed system, without any emissions within the facilities. Moreover, in addition to frequent employee training on hazardous substances and emergency situations, numerous technical safety precautions are taken that go beyond the basic standards required by the authorities. These precautions include separate fire protection zones with infrared monitoring and sprinkler systems, an automatic foaming system with underground collection basin, a system for reusing extinguishing water, and numerous geographic air monitors.
“Due to the newest technology and the plant design, operation is clean and almost without any noise.”
Comparison of the drying behavior of printing ink on film
When Ethyls are used (left side), the pigments are distributed heterogeneously on the printed film, while when Propyls are used, the pigments form a more homogeneous layer (right side of figure). The chosen shape of the pigments serves as a better representation and does not describe the actual shape of a pigment.
Propanol 2 is also setting standards when it comes to environmental technology. To save natural gas, liquefied and gaseous by-products are completely burned off, and up to 100% of the energy created is used to produce steam. Sustainable life cycle management is in place for all other waste, achieving a high reuse quota of more than 90%. The consumption of nickel catalyst for hydrogenation has also been reduced by more than 25% thanks to an improved recovery process. This makes the entire production process environmentally efficient and free of by-products. To minimize the need for wastewater processing, OXEA collects rain and possibly contaminated water in on-site basins; after an analysis of any contamination, rainwater that has been confirmed as clean can be discharged, eliminating unnecessary wastewater
processing. This is in addition to the fact that OXEA’s Propanol 2 unit was built where a previously closed plant was located in order to avoid building on new earth. The concrete from the foundations of the old plant was recycled, and the still existing, old pipe rack was reused. Senthil Kumar is especially glad that no significant environmental, health, and safety incidents occurred during the entire project implementation phase, although Propanol 2 started operations four months earlier than planned. “This is a significant achievement for Propanol 2 from an environmental, health, and safety standpoint, and I am very proud of this. Due to the newest technologies implemented and the design of the unit, plant operations are very clean and virtually without any noise.”
Mr. Heuwes, what were the biggest challenges when it came to planning and building Propanol 2?
Markus Heuwes__ There are many things that are simply daily routine, because OXEA relies on a structured process with clearly defined procedures and safety requirements for each project phase. But despite this, it’s not like we erect new production facilities every day. The biggest challenge was thinking of all the details while keeping an overview on everything. A project of this massive size only functions when everyone knows what it’s about, can contribute their know-how, and is motivated from the start to the very end.
How did you manage this?
MH__ By having an open mind and being transparent. Communication is key to success, which is why we brought all stakeholders into the planning from the very beginning – from the team for occupational safety to the management team and, especially, the staff who will be operating the unit in the long run as internal customers for the project within OXEA. This enabled us to consider all their requirements in the planning stage, to learn from what we have achieved so far, and to create suggestions for improvement for the next steps. This requires being open-minded and treating others with respect; values that are strongly anchored in OXEA’s corporate culture. At the same time, one has to know their own limits as a relatively small site and, if necessary, get support from outside. Recognizing this and implementing it was one of the most important factors for our success.
How important is this new production unit to Bay City?
MH__ Propanol 2 has made a significant contribution to securing the Bay City site in the long run and has made it even more attractive. On an emotional level, because this has been the first investment for a new production unit in Bay City for decades; and on an economic level, because propanol is one of our top products, with growing demand. What’s more, we were able to create new jobs in Bay City. This is also good for the site, and a good sign for the local community.
“The biggest challenge was thinking of all the details while keeping an overview on everything.”
came from Germany to Bay City in 1997 as an expatriate and has been a project manager at OXEA since 2011. As Project Director for Propanol 2, the engineer was mainly responsible for planning the production facilities and leading the construction phase, from initial planning to the start-up of operations.
OXEA is the world’s largest producer of propanol. The second unit in Bay City will increase production volumes by a further 75%. To ensure that demand increases in order to fully utilize this massive capacity, OXEA previously analyzed sustainability- relevant market trends in package printing and generated a needs profile. “We are seeing rising demand worldwide for Propyls, with a growth rate of 5 to 6% every year,” says Lucia Paniagua, Global Lead & Business Development for Propyls. However, there are enormous regional differences in this number.
For instance, Propyls are readily available in North America, Russia, and many areas of Latin America. As a result, packaging producers there, who rely on solvent- based flexographic and gravure printing methods, have already been using Propyls for many years across the board. The sales potential for Propyls directly correlates to branch growth, explains Lucia Paniagua. This is in strong contrast to Europe, Southeast Asia, India, and countries such as Turkey, China, and Brazil. Here, the use of conventional ethanol / ethyl acetate and other solvents has been the standard, because Propyls had virtually not been available there up to some years ago. “There is huge potential for demand for our product in these regions, regardless of branch growth,” according to Lucia Paniagua. “We are currently working on convincing packaging printers to switch to OXEA’s system.”
“The slower evaporation process of Propyls lowers the VOC concentration in printing operations and emissions to air.” Naoko Roth, Global Commercial Business Director, Oxo Intermediates, OXEA
Studies show: Propyls are more economical and sustainable
To persuade printers to switch to Propyls using convincing arguments, OXEA commissioned worldwide industry tests and scientific studies. They show that printers using Propyls save 30% in solvents on average and 20% in printing ink, without compromising quality. “At the same time, the printing machines did not need to be changed in any way,” says Naoko Roth, Global Commercial Business Director, Oxo Intermediates. “Printing companies can therefore simply replace ethanol and ethyl acetate with Propyls to achieve these savings. Additional investments are not necessary.”
This is thanks to the special properties of Propyls. They evaporate slower than conventional solvents and therefore have a much smaller environmental footprint. “The slower evaporation process with Propyls lowers the VOC concentration in printing operations and results in fewer emissions to air,” explains Naoko Roth. Moreover, lower amounts of solvent need to be recycled, which lowers energy consumption.
The ecological benefits, however, are not argument enough. “Many printing companies are only willing to switch if they do not have to pay more,” says Naoko Roth. As the studies show, Propyls can also score points in this respect. That’s because they stabilize the printing process. The result is fewer machine halts and fewer scraps. At the same time, productivity increases, because the printers can print at a higher machine speed while ensuring the same high quality.
Naoko Roth is optimistic that many potential customers will be convinced by these arguments. “We are seeing rapid growth mainly in South America, India, Europe, and China.” And Naoko Roth has clear objectives. “In the next four years, we want to completely utilize the production capacity of Propanol 2: in other words, an additional 25,000 metric tons a year.“
“Every switchover is a success. Not just for us.” Jens Klabunde, Business Development Manager, OXEA
Mr. Klabunde, OXEA is not the only company that produces propyls. What is special about your product?
Jens Klabunde _ We’ve performed numerous industry studies over the past five years, meaning massive amounts of development work. This means we know exactly how printing companies can successfully switch over to Propyls. And we share this know-how with potential customers. In other words: we don’t simply deliver our products to the door, we serve as an advisor and coach inside the companies and give tailored support to enable the printers to switch over without a hitch. Our products come with customized technical service, which other producers don’t offer.
How do potential customers react to your product offering?
JK _ In very different ways. Some are skeptical, because they don’t see a reason to change. Others are really interested, because they want to be environmentally friendly and to stand out from the competition by offering ecological production. In many parts of Asia, in contrast, the environment is secondary. But that is also slowly changing. Like in India. Mainly toluene continues to be used there, but this is now going to be legally banned because it’s considered to cause cancer. In the near future, a massive switch to other solvent systems will be taking place here and in other countries due to ever-stricter laws.
Is replacing a solvent with another an act of sustainability?
JK _ Solvents are absolutely necessary for flexographic and gravure printing. But if printers have to replace solvents, they should choose the system with the best footprint. 30% savings is a high number. It means up to 600 metric tons of substances in a single large company that no longer end up in the environment and in the airways of the printing company’s staff. Every switchover is a success. Not just for us.
has been with OXEA for eight years. The bio-technician and chemist is not only responsible for finding new applications for OXEA’s product portfolio, he is also a frequent guest in printing companies around the world. As a coach, Jens Klabunde helps printers to switch to Propyls by performing tests on-site and providing tailored support.