IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change Ethylene

Ethylene, which is used in the production of plastics and many other products, is produced by steam cracking hydrocarbon feedstocks, from ethane to gas oil. Hydrogen, methane, propylene and heavier hydrocarbons are produced as byproducts. The heavier the feedstock, the more and heavier the byproducts, and the more energy consumed per tonne of ethylene produced (Worrell et al., 2000a). Ren et al. (2006) report that steam cracking for olefin production is the most energy consuming process in the chemicals industry, accounting for emissions of about 180 MtCO2/yr (49MtC/yr), but that significant reductions are possible. Cracking consumes about 65% of the total energy used in ethylene production, but use of state-of-the-art technologies (e.g., improved furnace and cracking tube materials and cogeneration using furnace exhaust) could save up to about 20% of total energy. The remainder of the energy is used for separation of the ethylene product, typically by low-temperature distillation and compression. Up to 15% total energy can be saved by improved separation and compression techniques (e.g., absorption technologies for separation). Catalytic cracking also offers the potential for reduced energy use, with a savings of up to 20% of total energy. This savings is not additional to the energy savings for improved steam cracking (Ren et al., 2006). Processes have been developed for converting methane in natural gas to olefins as an alternative to steam cracking. However, Ren et al. (2005) conclude that the most efficient of these processes uses more than twice as much primary energy as state-of-the-art steam cracking of naphtha.