NOVA Chemicals Corporation

2004 Winner: Outstanding Commercial Achievement in Alberta Science and Technology (>25M)

Novel Research Solves Problem that Plagues Steam Cracking Process

NOVA Chemicals Corporation has developed a unique furnace coil technology that dramatically reduces decoking downtime for its steam cracking furnaces and is now marketed worldwide. All steam cracking processes are plagued by the formation of coke on the furnace coil, requiring frequent, costly shutdowns to remove it. The culprits are iron and nickel, the main components of high-temperature alloys used as furnace coil materials. They are catalytically active at high temperatures, which lead to rapid coke formation. In a typical steam cracker, this means an average furnace runtime of 30 days between decoking cycles.

NOVA Chemicals Corporation in Calgary embarked on a research project to develop a method to “switch off” this catalytic activity on furnace coil surfaces. The project team – comprised of principal engineer Dr. Michael Oballa, engineers William Wong and Chi Wong, and furnace specialist Les Benum, from the Joffre plant, took an innovative approach. Counter to the industry practice of applying coatings or additives to coil surfaces, the team focused on the surface properties of the base metal and used them to modify the coil surface.

In another innovative approach, the team continuously applied the results of their ongoing research to the commercial plant operations and used the resulting data to help focus the research. In the normal course of R&D, significant research is completed before it is tested on a commercial scale. By applying small changes to the commercial operation throughout the R&D stage, the team was able to confirm early results and alter their course as required. The project resulted in a new method of modifying the surface of a stainless steel matrix to make it inert to coke formation in steam crackers. The modified coils were installed at the Joffre plant and tested and fine-tuned over a three-year period. The results far exceeded expectations.

NOVA Chemicals has achieved run lengths of more than 400 days in its plants. This performance is far superior to that of all commercially available technologies, such as additives and coatings, which have not achieved a run length of more than 100-120 days. The new technology also has reduced fixed costs, extended the life of the furnace coils, improved energy efficiency, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. NOVA Chemicals commercialized its unique furnace coil technology in 2003 by selling licence rights to Kubota Metal Corporation, which is marketing it worldwide under the trade name of Ank400. Six commercial sales have been realized to date.