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Alpha 3 – the journey to world-class MMA production

Since its beginnings in the late 1990s, the journey of our Alpha technology has always involved two things – global teamwork and a single-minded dedication to continuous improvement.

Alpha technology is our revolutionary, patented route to creating MMA (methyl methacrylate) based on readily available raw materials – methanol, ethylene and carbon monoxide.

Now, following our plans to build a third Alpha MMA plant in the USA, we spoke to some key people supporting its deployment to get an insight into their experiences and the work that’s led to this new chapter in the Alpha story.

Pictured: “Alpha 1” – our original Alpha MMA plant in Singapore.

The Chemistry

It all began at Wilton in the UK, where a team of chemists developed the novel catalysts required for the Alpha process. To this day, their work continues as we seek to continually enhance the performance of the technology.

“When I joined the Alpha catalyst R&D team at Wilton in 2007,” says Ian York, Senior Research Scientist, “the original catalyst worked well enough to be the keystone in the initial commercialisation of the Alpha process at our plant in Singapore, but the science behind how it functioned was largely unresolved, as was any potential for improvement and optimisation of its performance.

“By researching and testing concepts at Wilton, we’ve developed a better understanding, which has enabled us to turn lab-scale discoveries into production-scale catalysts with improved performance – delivering operational and commercial benefits to our Alpha MMA plants.”

Adam Cullen, Senior Research Scientist, joined the team in 2015. He says: “I was most impressed by the emphasis placed on understanding the fundamental science underpinning the Alpha technology. Working within the Alpha team, you are continually challenged to not only think as a scientist, but to also think of the commercial implications of your research.”

The Piloting

An Alpha pilot plant has been operating at Wilton since 2003. This reduced-scale replica plant helps us develop improved catalysts and test process improvements which will be incorporated into the Alpha 3 design.

Pictured: the Alpha pilot plant at Wilton, UK.

“The concept behind the pilot plant was for it to be as operationally close to a full-scale production plant as possible, but also flexible in its design and operational capabilities”, says Mark Jefferson, who has been involved with it for a number of years.

“The pilot has undergone both mechanical and operational changes since 2003. This built-in flexibility for easy modification, coupled with the pilot shift team’s dedication, has allowed the engineers to obtain data to validate and improve their models while enabling the chemists to test and enhance catalyst performance.”

Mark continues: “Training the Singapore team in the operation of the new technology, which allowed them to successfully bring the first Alpha plant on line, was one of the project highlights, along with collecting Mitsubishi Chemical’s Chief Operating Officer award in 2018 on behalf of the piloting team. The award was given in recognition of their contribution to the commercialisation of the improved catalyst.

“Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the team has risen to the challenge to ensure the pilot continues to run smoothly. This is vital work to generate the necessary data to support catalyst improvements and to underpin the Alpha 3 design.”

Learning from Alpha 1

“Since 2008, Alpha technology has come a long way,” says Yogesh Kulkarni, Lead Process Engineer at our original Alpha plant in Singapore. Yogesh has been part of the Alpha 3 project from the beginning. He tells us: “Alpha 1 proved the basic technology for commercial manufacturing, Alpha 2 in Saudi Arabia proved how flexibly it can be scaled. Alpha 3 is taking this even further as it will become the largest MMA plant in world.

Pictured: Singapore’s then-Senior Minister for Trade, Industry and Education visits the Alpha 1 control room.

“Ever since Alpha 1 was commissioned, it has provided valuable support for the continuous development of the technology. It has become a template for the Alpha 3 plant design, as we use it to try out some of the concepts which will be used there.

“Personally, it has been hugely valuable experience for me to be involved in all three Alpha plants. Alpha 1 and 2 posed very different challenges to the project team. It is very satisfying to see both the plants doing so well in very different parts of the world. Being part of such a successful technology and project team gives me immense satisfaction. The challenges we are going to face with Alpha 3 project will be interesting and motivating to all of us and we’re really looking forward to seeing this project through to a successful completion!”

Growing with Alpha 2

The second Alpha plant, owned by Saudi Methacrylates Company (SAMAC – a joint venture between Mitsubishi Chemical and SABIC), is where the most recent learning is being acquired.

Muhammad Usman has supported SAMAC from a technical point of view since 2017, ensuring efficient cross learning between it and the Alpha design and operating teams, which we can take forward to Alpha 3. He says: “It’s been a challenging yet exciting experience. I work with SAMAC’s teams on a daily basis knowing that the advice I give can potentially have a huge financial impact, and that is extremely empowering. One of my key duties is training SAMAC’s engineering and operating teams. It’s very rewarding to see how their knowledge of Alpha technology has grown over the past three years.

“We’re constantly trying to improve the Alpha process with the help of support teams in Wilton and at the Alpha 1 site in Singapore. Together, we are achieving significant learning and making improvements. A couple of specific examples include reduced regeneration times on MMA reactors and quicker decontamination of equipment in shutdowns, making SAMAC and Alpha technology more efficient. All this learning is being captured and will be applied as part of the Alpha 3 design and operating procedures.”

Bringing it all together

Better catalysts, process improvements, learnings from Alpha 1 and Alpha 2 – how do we bring all of this together to design a new, world-class MMA plant? This is the job of the Alpha project team, led by those with experience of Alpha technology from the very beginning and supported by a group of newer, talented individuals each bringing new energies and wider experience.

“It has been a wonderful journey” says Mark Jelpke, Senior Commissioning Manager, who has spent the past 17 years with Alpha. “The opportunity to be involved in a new process from the beginning doesn’t happen very often. From trials on the pilot plant to get the data we needed, designing, commissioning and operating the first large scale plant in Singapore and again in Saudi Arabia has been a huge learning curve.

“We now know so much more than we did 17 years ago. With improved yields, better catalyst life, lower energy usage and better environmental performance, we can build the plants bigger and we have the operational experience to get the best out of them. Alpha 3 will incorporate the very best of our knowledge into a plant built to the most modern standards, and I very much look forward to playing my part in demonstrating its full potential.”

Onwards to Alpha 3

As we now look to the US Gulf Coast region for Alpha 3, which is scheduled to be fully operational in 2025, Wayne Ogorzalek, USA Strategic Projects Senior Analyst, gives us his perspective on this exciting time:

“Working on this type of project is a unique opportunity; being involved from the earliest stages in transforming regional manufacturing and positioning it for long-term success. As a project steering team member, I am supporting project management.  Early activities include site evaluations, US-based partner and contractor evaluations, engaging with the Mitsubishi Chemical America legal team, ensuring our business planning and supply chain activities are fully aligned with our strategic plans and enhancing the customer experience prior to and after the Alpha 3 commissioning.  I am enjoying the opportunity to work with many talented colleagues around the world to successfully bring the next generation of Alpha to the US region.”

When complete, Alpha 3 will be the largest MMA production plant in the world. Drawing on over 15 years of reliable and safe operations, as well as great global experience and technological improvements, it will be a crucial to Mitsubishi Chemical’s North American growth strategy and, even more importantly, it will help us provide reliable MMA supply to our customers for decades to come.