LyondellBasell opens new Houston research center

LyondellBasell on Monday took the wrapping off a giant chemistry set, a 70,000-square-foot laboratory where scientists can blast metals with X-rays and use powerful magnets to scan molecules.

The company’s Houston Technology Center in Channelview will allow 80 LyondellBasell researchers to test new materials that can be used in key chemical reactions that make the building blocks for items as varied as plastic toys and laundry-detergent pods.

Improving these processes will help LyondellBasell manufacture these chemicals at higher rates while using less energy, executives said.

Although researchers have worked on such improvements for decades, they have a near-endless number of changes they can try using different molecules and combinations, said Sandor Nagy, a research scientist at the new center.

“It’s never over, ” he said.

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Media and other visitors toured the Houston Technology Center at the company’s Channelview complex, which is expanding to take advantage of abundant supplies of natural gas and natural gas liquids like ethane and propane, which are major components in the chemical-making process.

Large supplies of those resources have lowered costs and increased profits for chemical companies, which use natural gas liquids to make products that go into a variety of items.

“Those changed market conditions have allowed us to announce literally billions of dollars of expansions, most of it here in the United States, ” LyondellBasell CEO Jim Gallogly said.

Executives wouldn’t say how much the new center cost.

Across the U.S. chemical industry, companies are planning or building more than 90 projects costing a total of $72 billion because of cheap natural gas and other feedstocks, the American Chemistry Council reports.

Past improvements from LyondellBasell’s research centers have increased the efficiency of some processes up to 20 percent, said Dan White, catalyst manager at the center.

Most of the center’s 80 employees are scientists, and 22 of them moved to Houston after LyondellBasell closed its research site near Philadelphia, spokesman David Harpole said.

The research center will focus on improving the way chemical feedstocks react and change to make other products that can be used in plastics and other materials.

Improving those reactions could mean using new catalyst chemicals, ingredients that help the chemical production process happen. New catalysts can make reactions occur more efficiently, perhaps requiring less energy or resulting in higher production, White said.

Scientists at the center will mix catalyst materials in vials within glove boxes, which let scientists reach into oxygen-free environments to combine items.

Researchers can then use machines to fire X-rays at the materials they create to confirm that their reactions worked properly. They can also use machinery in a nuclear magnetic resonance lab to further confirm the molecular structure of the materials, White said.

The center also has small-scale models of plants, some of which could fill a small home. The models – one of them is one-50,000th the size of an actual plant – run chemicals through a series of steel tubes, hoses, reactors and chillers to create chemical products and separate them from other materials.

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One of these pilot systems moved materials through two “chilling trains” to cool gases so that they could be liquefied and separated from products, White said.

“One is cold, another is very cold, ” said Jared Fern, a research engineer at the center, describing the chilling trains.

The miniature plants will show whether the materials work well, and how much they improve efficiency, White said.

LyondellBasell is in the midst of an expansion at its chemical complex in Channelview. The company is adjusting and restarting an offline methanol plant and is increasing the capacity at one of its other plants, so that it can produce more ethylene.

LyondellBasell emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 after a period of high oil and natural gas prices and a series of other events that pushed it into failure.

The company has since benefited from large supplies of cheap fuels in the U.S., which have helped it become profitable and begin expanding.