Aither one step closer to cracker plant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- South Charleston-based Aither Chemicals took a significant step Thursday toward building an ethane catalytic "cracker" plant in the Kanawha Valley.Aither signed an agreement with Bayer MaterialScience to determine the market demand for chemicals and other products that would be produced at the petrochemical facility.Aither hopes to complete the facility - a $200 million to $750 million investment -- by early 2015. The facility would employ about 200 people - most likely at the Bayer-owned Institute Industrial Park.On Thursday, Aither and Bayer announced they have started an "open season" to gauge interest from the plant's potential customers. Interested companies should contact Aither by July 20, according to the memorandum of understanding signed Thursday."The memorandum of understanding is a first step toward building a catalytic ethane cracker in the Kanawha Valley region, and we are optimistic that the market will respond," said Aither CEO Len Dohlert.According to a release, Aither's plant would take ethane gas from the Marcellus Shale and produce up to 600 million pounds of ethylene, 300 million pounds of acetic acid, 80 million pounds of carbon dioxide and 40 million pounds of carbon monoxide each year.Aither wants to sell those chemicals to other companies, some of which would presumably locate near Aither's plant."Bayer is helping us determine if there's a market interest for those chemicals and plastics produced by an Aither plant," said Jason Keeling, an Aither spokesman. Thursday's agreement does not stipulate that Aither build the cracker plant at Institute, Keeling said. The company hasn't yet selected a site, but has targeted the Kanawha Valley region.Aither already has lined up companies willing to supply ethane to Aither's plant, according to Thursday's release. Denver-based MarkWest Energy Partners is expected to be the largest ethane supplier.After July 20, Aither will evaluate the market response and "decide on next steps by Aug. 31," the company said.If Aither moves ahead with the project, the catalytic ethane plant would likely start production within three years.
The size of the facility would hinge, in part, on the demand for the chemicals that the plant produces, Aither officials said.Aither's plant would use 80 percent less energy and produce 90 percent less carbon dioxide than a traditional steam cracking plant, which uses heat and steam to process ethane. Aither's cracking process was developed by Union Carbide Corp. decades ago."Aither's process requires substantially less capital investment and has lower operating costs than a steam cracker," said Steven Cohen, Aither's contact person for companies interested in purchasing the proposed plant's chemical products.
Renewable Manufacturing Gateway, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that's helping Aither secure financing for the project, will advise the company on the market response, according to the release.In March, Aither prepared a news release about the pending cracker announcement. The company distributed the release to state officials. Aither also had planned to hold a news conference, but the event never happened.State officials said negotiations stalled immediately after the Gazette published a front-page story about the expected cracker project announcement.Aither plans to build the Kanawha Valley cracker plant in stages, starting with a smaller production facility. The plant, at full production, would generate about $500 million in annual sales.In late February, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law a tax incentive plan designed to lure an ethane cracker plant to West Virginia. The legislation gives a 25-year property tax break to companies that spend more than $2 billion on such a facility.Aither's Kanawha Valley plant would be significantly smaller and less costly, but company executives have said they would ask for a similar tax break.
Aither, which has 10 employees, spun off from the Mid-Atlantic Technology & Innovation Center, or MATRIC, a South Charleston organization located at the state-owned West Virginia Regional Technology Park - formerly known as the Dow Tech Park.Companies interested in contacting Aither during the "open season," can call Cohen at 614-336-7956.Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.
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