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Russian R&D

Nov 29, 2023

Save to read list Published by Callum O'Reilly, Senior Editor Hydrocarbon Engineering, Monday, 03 August 2020 11:00

Russia's petrochemicals industry, which also exports to Europe, Asia, and Turkey, is in many ways evolving as fast as – if not faster than – federal policy.

The Kremlin has signed measures into law which require solid waste to be sorted into different receptacles across all municipalities in Russia starting 1 January 2019. The government has since added an extension, giving many regions until 2022 to get up to speed and put measures in place. That said, Moscow has already begun to implement these measures with new separate waste bins introduced throughout the city during 2019. This move was designed to pave the way for new areas of development in secondary economies for waste – namely, plastics recycling.

SIBUR has been working with partners on compliance specifications for EU standards, and Europe aims for higher percentages of recycled material to make their way into finished products through 2025. For SIBUR, the Russian legislation represents a future feedstock stream. The company aims for up to 25% of new granules to come from recycled plastics feedstock. The quality of products and clients’ requirements during this transition will be managed by its PolyLab R&D centre, including innovative projects to raise recycling yields.

PolyLab is a 5000 m2 laboratory located on the Skolkovo campus – the nation's foremost technology incubator and corporate R&D centre. The facility's research, processing, and production facilities augment the work and results of SIBUR's existing Siberian research centres in Tomsk and elsewhere, and provide an international platform for peers, colleagues, and clients.

Figure 1. The SIBUR PolyLab in Moscow, Russia.

The capacities of PolyLab will be of crucial importance as the company ramps up output from the ZapSib plant in Tobolsk. The plant will triple SIBUR's polymer production capacity and reach, as it draws on cheap feedstock from Russia's Siberian oil and gas heartland. ZapSib will produce 500 000 tpy of polypropylene and 1.5 million tpy of polyethylene, and as much as 2.7 million t of LPG will be used as feedstock for the plant. This will be used to produce various plastic goods, including packaging.

PolyLab will become the company's nexus for development as SIBUR services new clients and responds to evolving demands and regulations across various markets, including domestic and global shifts towards greener business practices.

SIBUR has signed agreements with Norner AS, 3M, Reifenhäuser, BASF, and others to employ technologies, innovate, and coordinate future development. The centre's remit includes improving durability, strength, quality with regard to specific uses, as well as introducing polymer recycling solutions. This will include polymer testing, processing and final product testing.

Figure 2. PolyLab testing laboratory.

To this end, samples of new polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) grades will be transformed at their pilot manufacturing lines into pipes, medical goods, films, food packaging and other products. This will provide a deeper insight into polymer properties and impact on the end product quality to further improve the materials and boost production efficiency.

SIBUR and 3M will cooperate on the development of new PE and PP grades, including those to be produced at ZapSibNeftekhim. In particular, the parties will develop new solutions to boost the processability of polymer grades and make SIBUR's products more eco-friendly and fit for recycling.

SIBUR and BASF are working together to leverage the digital technologies in production and R&D, and to develop an innovative range of polymers using the plastic additives offered by BASF. In addition, BASF will offer its technical expertise in the development of new technology tests at PolyLab.

In addition, the companies plan to jointly develop new high-performance additive solutions, focusing on highly demanding converting conditions for polymers and specifically targeting goods with long-term durability. They will promote these new solutions at joint technical events to educate SIBUR's customers and industry players.

SIBUR has a cooperation pact at the laboratory with Norway's Norner AS, which has many years of practical and theoretical experience in synthesising, modifying, and recycling polymers and adapting to the needs of end customers. Norner has partnered with SIBUR on multiple projects during the last seven years that were aimed at reducing cost and promoting value-added polymer grades.

SIBUR and Norner will jointly develop new product solutions and optimise polymer stabilising formulas. These will include innovative green polymer grades, catalysis testing, as well as new chemical and technical recycling technologies.

The purpose of SIBUR's PolyLab is to diversify the product range with value-added solutions. This will help the company find new applications for polyolefins both in existing and new products on the market. The centre will be able to develop improved polymers and test them in finished products quickly.

Back in 2006, SIBUR established NIOST, its corporate R&D centre for chemical technologies, in Tomsk. While NIOST focuses on material studies, the new R&D centre will, apart from analysing properties of materials, explore and develop real applications.

For this purpose, PolyLab is fitted with machinery to simulate key production operations that use SIBUR's existing and yet-to-be-developed polyolefin grades.

The injection moulding equipment includes 30 t, 50 t and 150 t injection moulding machines to manufacture caps, lids, rigid packaging (lidded containers, 850 ml thin wall plastic cups, and 1 l handled buckets). The 150 t machine can also be coupled with a robot to test-run stockpiling and manufacture in-mould labelled products.

Other important segments of rigid packaging production are thermoforming and extrusion blow moulding. The suitability of propylene grades for thermoforming will be tested using a machine fitted out with a 200 ml cup mould. An extrusion blow moulding (EBM) machine will be used to make 1 l to 10 l polyethylene and polypropylene bottles and cans.

With the start of LLDPE and HDPE production at SIBUR, the importance of the flexible packaging segment is also growing. The R&D centre will have full-scale production lines for multi-layer 1.3 – 1.5 m wide tubular film and CPP film with the capacity of 250 and 500 kg/hr.

A 32 – 110 mm pipe extrusion line is designed to use the existing grade of statistical PP copolymers, as well as yet-to-be-produced grades – HDPE and block copolymers. The only exclusion is the fibre and nonwoven fabric segment, which will only have a multifilament yarn machine. Industrial machinery for this segment is too large to be installed in the R&D centre.

To explore the structure and physical and chemical properties of polymers, the laboratory has the necessary equipment for gas and liquid chromatography, along with a gel permeation chromatograph, which is indispensable in polyolefin studies. Thermal research methods and IR spectrometry will help researchers to study stabilisation formulas and the structure of polymers. It is often necessary to take a look into finished products to learn the internals of a processing technology. With the aid of electron and optical microscopes, researchers will look into the distribution of pigments and additives in the polymer matrix. Microscopes will also be instrumental in responding to customers’ requests.

All of these machines will help SIBUR PolyLab develop new polyolefin grades, evaluate the impact of their properties on processing and operating parameters, showcase the advantages of new materials, and make recommendations on optimal processing modes and faster adoption by customers.

Special attention should be paid to the development of biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) film formulas. PolyLab will have a seven-layer sheet extrusion machine and a tenter frame for the orientation of sheets produced. This equipment will reduce the duration and cost of BOPP film development projects.

PolyLab will also provide end-to-end research and testing services for the development of new formulas and solutions. For this purpose, the R&D centre will have a 100 kg/hr twin-screw extruder, which will be used to improve existing polyolefin stabilising formulas and develop new ones. The centre will be able to develop new compounds based on SIBUR's current product offering.

The new centre will test finished products, such as pipes, cans, bottles and cups, measure their dimensions, and assess their appearance, structural and mechanical properties, and resistance to heat and frost, which plays an important role in analysing new ideas and optimising product formulas.

The centre will include a set of equipment to test polyolefin grades for piping. This will test for long-duration hydrostatic, crack growth resistance, plastic flow and tightness tests, as well as for obtaining faster results. For instance, one of the laboratory testing devices is used to measure the resistance of polymer materials to fast crack growth.

Film production from polyolefin grades will also undergo product testing. The laboratory features both regular devices for tensile strength tests, optical and sealability measurements, as well as less common equipment needed to test new film grades, such as an Elmendorf tear tester, a drop weight impact test machine, and puncture and barrier property testers. The company periodically needs to study its customers’ production processes, particularly when testing new batches, modifying existing materials or handling customer claims. This is what corona treatment, flexographic printing, lamination and solvent coating machines do. Polymer processing should always start with the evaluation of rheological properties. For this reason, the laboratory is fitted with conventional rheometers, as well as with a rotational viscometer and a capillary tube viscometer with a melt strength measurement option. The centre also features a variety of devices to measure mechanical, thermal and optical properties of materials.

Polymers are well-known synthetic materials that are durable, strong, and environmentally friendly, and can be widely used in construction, utilities, automotive, healthcare, food and other industries. The key priority of SIBUR's PolyLab is to promote the use of polymers both to manufacture existing products, and to design novel solutions to drive technological advancement in all industries across which plastics are used.

The centre will foster the use of recycled materials and the application of polymers in the circular economy. For this purpose, samples of new PE and PP grades will be transformed at the centre's pilot manufacturing lines into pipes, medical goods, films, food packaging, canisters and other products. This will provide a deeper insight into polymer properties and their impact on the end product quality to further improve the materials and boost production efficiency.

The global population has doubled in size in the time since most readers of this publication were born. Plastics, which are durable, light and flexible, have played a critical role in advancing sanitation, transportation, preventing food spoilage, and reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

The future role of the plastics industry is being defined, in part, by the consequences of its past contribution to the accumulation of pollution in the oceans and of valuable polymers being wasted in landfills. As countries adopt new legislation to regulate the use of plastics and public opinion begins to shift, the industry will need to offer high-tech responses and organise efforts that involve numerous players in order to answer the challenges of the day. SIBUR will continue to play a leading role as it answers this challenge.

Written by Konstantin Vernigorov, SIBUR, Russia.

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US propane exports reached a record 1.7 million bpd in March 2023. Propane is consumed globally for space heating, and is used as a petrochemical feedstock.

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