Small is Big in the World of Modularization

September 21, 2021

Our company, Modular Plant Solutions (MPS), was born out of a conversation over dinner. As we frequently talk about the industry, we were discussing what to do with a supply of stranded natural gas. After all, that kind of conversation is natural between a freshly retired chemical engineer and an entrepreneur with expertise in specialty fabrication for the oil and petrochemicals industries.

The answer seemed simple: convert the stranded natural gas into something useful, transportable and profitable.

The challenge: this particular stranded gas was in a remote location, not easily reachable nor near a pipeline — as is the case for most stranded gas throughout the world.

Associated natural gas is produced during oil production, and if there’s no gas pipeline, operators have to flare (burn), reinject the gas, or shut in the well altogether. The World Economic Forum estimates that each year, approximately 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas is flared, emitting hundreds of millions of tons of polluting emissions. And with some locations around the world beginning to restrict flaring of gas, oil production limitations could be next.

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But what if we could create a plant that could be assembled on-site, in a remote location, to process all that stranded gas? And what if we converted it to high-grade methanol?

After all, methanol conversion from natural gas is one of the simpler chemical processes. It’s a transportable liquid with dozens of uses and applications in several industries — from plastics, automotive and paints to adhesives, construction and pharmaceuticals. It’s also gaining traction as a viable fuel alternative, especially for the marine transport industry. Additionally, methanol is economically attractive, as it typically tracks the price of oil.

But the economics for such a small-scale methanol plant would be challenging. Smaller isn’t usually better when it comes to chemical plants, and we knew we needed to create something that was approximately one-twentieth the size of a “normal” world-scale plant to work for the type of application we had in mind.

Knowing that capital and operating costs would be the biggest challenges for a potential customer of this plant, we started designing our small-scale plant literally inside the box: an ISO-standard shipping container to be precise. Our concept was to design the module frames for the small-scale plant to be the same size as ISO shipping containers and meet the ISO 1496 standard. If we could fit all the parts to build this plant in container-sized module frames that can easily be shipped by truck, ship or rail, we could more easily reach the remote parts of the world in need of this technology. The combination of shop-fabricated modules, a standardized design, remote operation and lower transportation costs would make the small-scale plant competitive with world-scale plants.

We took to the drawing board and went through several iterations of what designs and equipment sizes made sense economically and fit in the frames. We stripped out non-essential parts of a methanol plant, and came up with the optimized modular design. The various modules could be produced in several areas of the world, shipped to a location, and assembled on-site, with our patent-pending idea of fitting everything in ISO-1496 standard module frames.

After hundreds of hours of research, discussion and design iterations, we officially unveiled our plant design, called MeOH-To-Go™ or Methanol-To-Go™, with Haldor Topsoe, utilizing their process technologies. With this modularized, small-scale approach, our customers are able to get closer to their feedstock of natural gas by building plants in more remote locations, from South Dakota to Africa, Texas to Russia.

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So, what’s next?

Although the standardized, modular design of MeOH-To-Go™ is what keeps the economics of our plant feasible, we also built in several options for inputs and add-on technology — both to the front-end or back-end of a plant — allowing customers to change inputs and outputs depending on their needs. Such options currently include feedstocks of woody biomass, various compositions of Syngas and natural gas, including natural gas liquids, and future plans for other green/blue options. Outputs range from the traditional MeOH-To-Go™ plant product of AA grade methanol, to 88 Octane gasoline, dimethyl ether (DME), and more.

A Methanol-To-Go™ plant can also regionalize a supply of methanol. For example, a company could produce methanol for marine vessel fuel by setting up a MeOH-To-Go™ plant near a major port — creating a consistent fuel supply. And because these plants are smaller, they produce much less emissions than world-scale plants, enabling customers to more easily obtain environmental permits.

We’re on the lookout for what’s next for small-scale modularization, and our job is to make those ideas make economic sense. We are already modularizing woody biomass gasification technology, gasoline technology and more. We anticipate that as technology changes and evolves, we’ll see smaller and smaller scale continue to make sense.

Keep an eye on MPS to see what other big things we’ll make small in the future.