April 2018

Special Focus: Petrochemical Technology

Establishing a plastics processing sector in NE India—A short analysis

The Assam gas cracker project was proposed as a part of the implementation of the Assam Accord, which was signed on August 15, 1985.

Phukan, P. K., Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Ltd.

The Assam gas cracker project was proposed as a part of the implementation of the Assam Accord, which was signed on August 15, 1985. In January 1991, a letter of intent was issued by Assam Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC) to set up a 300-Mtpy petrochemical gas cracker complex. Due to the inherent disadvantages of locating a project in Assam, the government could not attract a JV partner, despite its best efforts. Therefore, the Assam Government approached the Central Government in April 1992 for fiscal concessions to neutralize the disadvantages of setting up the project in Assam.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Government of Assam and Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) in May 1994, which created the company Reliance Assam Petrochemicals Ltd. (RAPL) to implement the project. However, RAPL did not start work on the project due to an insufficient supply of natural gas. RAPL demanded that the shortfall in natural gas be compensated by LPG at the cost of natural gas, but the project remained a non-starter.

FIG. 1. Configuration of BCPL’s petrochemical complex.
FIG. 1. Configuration of BCPL’s petrochemical complex.

In 2003, a meeting of Indian government officials was held to discuss providing a subsidy for the associated gas feedstock to be used for the complex. It was decided that GAIL would examine the feasibility of taking up the project on its own. GAIL also indicated the assistance needed from other public-sector undertakings and the support needed from the Indian government for setting up the project.

Finally, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the project in 2006. The JV company Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Ltd. (BCPL) was incorporated in January 2007 to operate the facility.

BCPL’s petrochemical complex is located at Lepetkata, India. The principal end products produced are 220 Mtpy of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), as well as 60 Mtpy of polypropylene (PP). The other products include hydrogenated pyrolysis gasoline and pyrolysis fuel oil. The plant’s configuration is shown in FIG. 1.

Considering the risks associated with setting up a greenfield mega-project in Assam, it was imperative that the viability of the project be sufficiently ensured. This required reducing the level of investment, ensuring feedstock availability at a reasonable cost and securing competitive finished product pricing considering the remote location of the plant. Since the petrochemicals business is cyclical in nature, the project financials must be sound enough to absorb the polymer price fluctuations.


A natural gas supply commitment from India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC), combined with moderate pricing, have provided a strong economic advantage to BCPL, which processes natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGL) into intermediate chemicals and an array of finished polymer products.

FIG. 2. Existing thermoplastics manufacturing capacity in India.
FIG. 2. Existing thermoplastics manufacturing capacity in India.

BCPL’s share in the existing manufacturing capacity is shown in FIG. 2. The impact of India’s chemical industry buildout will be felt not just in the northeastern states of India, which have a per-capita polymer consumption of 2.8 kg, but also across all Indian states where per-capita polymer consumption is 9.7 kg (FIG. 3). A breakout of plastics consumption in India is shown in FIG. 4.

BCPL’s petrochemical complex is a first step toward the buildout of a regional petrochemical hub and manufacturing renaissance in the plastics and chemicals sector in northeast India. The hope is that new and existing companies will take advantage of the PE and PP being produced by BCPL, and the intermediates produced from other potential regional cracker facilities.

The following focuses on the gas cracker project and includes the project’s challenges, innovation, cost and completion. The project’s concept-to-commissioning scope is shown in FIG. 5.

FIG. 3. Polymer consumption by region.
FIG. 3. Polymer consumption by region.


FIG. 4. Plastics consumption in India by region. Source: IOCL, Tata Strategic.
FIG. 4. Plastics consumption in India by region. Source: IOCL, Tata Strategic.


FIG. 5. The BCPL gas cracker project’s concept-to-commissioning route.
FIG. 5. The BCPL gas cracker project’s concept-to-commissioning route.

Project challenges

Major challenges that needed to be overcome during the initial and construction phases of the project included:

  • The bidders’ response for the ethane cracking unit (ECU) was poor, which led to a delay in finalizing the licensor for the ECU. Subsequently, selecting the licensor for the downstream units (i.e., PE and PP units) was also delayed. Several actions were taken to make up the slippage in the project’s schedule. Those included:

ο  Signing the licensing agreements as soon as the licensors were selected.

o  Having the licensors expedite their final datasheets at the earliest.

o  Commencing procurement and engineering activities, based on preliminary datasheets, instead of waiting for the final process packages.

o  Completing the site office, construction substations and receiving substation buildings by adopting unconventional construction techniques.

o  Executing basic and detailed engineering from Engineers India Ltd.’s regional offices.

o  Having process licensors supply critical equipment and long-lead item datasheets, piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs), equipment layouts, etc., within 12 wk–16 wk against the contractual date of 26 wk–36 wk. The ECU’s licensor was also asked to provide the heater’s detailed engineering package within 36 wk rather than the contractual timeframe of 54 wk.

  • A delay in authorization from the statutory authority regarding minor minerals used in the project. This obstacle was overcome by persistent persuasion with different statutory bodies.
  • Frequent theft/sabotage and misplacement of project materials. This challenge was overcome by instituting enhanced security measures.
  • Loss of working days due to frequent strikes. The project developers kept up relentless dialogues with local administration and appropriate labor to
    overcome this challenge.
  • Site grading and piling work was affected due to incessant rain. To ensure that work and the movement of equipment and labor during monsoon season continued, site grading contractors were advised to complete the construction activities for approach roads along with culverts and drains at the working sites.
  • A delay in readiness of utilities due to the lackluster approach of lump-sum turnkey (LSTK) contractors. This challenge was met by offloading some of the contracts (e.g., LSTK) and positioned the risk and cost to the main contractor.
  • Scarcity of water due to the disruption of an HT cable. To fulfill the demand for raw water, additional wells were drilled.
  • Paucity of requisite skilled and unskilled manpower. To fulfill labor needs, experienced contract manpower was outsourced.
  • A delay in the erection of major pieces of equipment, such as the purge column and ethylene fractionators, due to inadequate road/rail infrastructure and the unavailability of a nearby port. This challenge was overcome by transporting equipment in a knocked-down state by waterways and roadways, as well as by fabricating units onsite (e.g., PE polymerization reactor, purge column, etc.).
  • Unavailability of high-capacity cranes, which led to a delay in erecting heavy equipment. Nevertheless, BCPL developed the site condition on a priority basis and hired a high-capacity crane from outside agencies.
  • The project’s budget increased from nearly $853 MM to approximately $1.56 B. The increased cost was due to a high-escalation rate during the global recession (2008–2010), a prolonged monsoon season and several additional factors during the initial and final stages of the project.
  • A dearth of industrial culture and awareness/aptitude among people in the region about the benefits of petrochemical products. The project developers worked, trained and interacted with the workers to make them conscious about their work and safety procedures.

The commissioning of a modern chemical plant is a complex and difficult exercise. The final stage of a major project involves the authorization, design, construction and startup of the plant. Commissioning is the time when the quality of work carried out during earlier phases of the project is validated, and confirmation is made that a return on the investment commences.

Between the original conception of the project and the beneficial production of chemicals, all chemical plant projects pass through a similar sequence of phases. Decisions taken throughout the entire project are complex and are based on the best information available at that time. This information is sometimes incomplete or conflicting due to the uniqueness of concept to commissioning. The correctness of these decisions is not apparent until the plant is commissioned and operating.

During the detailed design stage, the plant’s hardware is constructed and is defined in detail. The design has a major influence on the success of commissioning, but some features that have a large effect on commissioning were overlooked during this project.

Challenges during the precommission, commissioning and startup phases

The readiness of utilities is a key factor to start precommissioning/commissioning activities, but the scenario was very difficult due to the lackluster approach of the LSTK contractors. A limitation in raw water storage, along with high silica content in the raw water intake well, were major reasons for a delay in commissioning of the DM plant and CPP. The project developers stored rainwater in the DM plant’s raw water reservoir to supply the desired specification of DM water to the CPP. This operation helped overcome the delay in commissioning CPP and steam generation, which helped supply power and the required steam for steam blowing the VHP, HP, MP and LP steam lines. The output between regeneration was reduced, and the regeneration cycle was increased in the DM plant.

There was a scarcity of nitrogen due to a delay in commissioning the nitrogen plant. Liquid nitrogen/nitrogen cylinders were procured from other agencies to mitigate the demand for passivation, inertization, seal gas, blanketing, etc.

Due to a lack of plant/instrument air, cardboard blasting of different pipelines was carried out with the help of a rented portable air compressor. Hydroblasting, rotomould cleaning, chemical cleaning and degreasing were carried out to clean the pipelines for different services. Due to the lack of heat load in the circuit, passivation of the cooling water circuit was delayed.

Multiple pieces of equipment, pipes/fittings, structural steels, etc., were damaged due to improper storage. Since equipment supplied by the vendor/mechanical contractor was not properly protected and/or cleaned, commissioning of the refrigeration package was delayed since precommissioning activities required more time than anticipated.

Several additional challenges that needed to be overcome by the project team included:

  • A breakdown of the No. 2 utility boiler in the CPP during commissioning.
  • Damage to 68 pole structures of the HT overhead transmission line during a cyclone.
  • Leakage in the cold box of the ECU during commissioning.
  • A delay in commissioning of other units (e.g., the GDU and GSU) due to the remote location.
  • A shortage in natural gas supply and polymer-grade naphtha feedstock to the ECU. This challenge was overcome by sourcing additional feedstock from other agencies. There was also a shortage in butene-1 feedstock to the PE unit. The operator procured additional butene-1 feedstock through various domestic sources. BCPL is also considering receiving butene-1 through bulk imports, as well as building a 10-Mtpy butene-1 plant. The plant also suffered from a shortage of propylene feed for the PP plant due to the scarcity of natural gas and/or naphtha, which was procured through various sources. The PP plant had problems starting up due to a problem with the inlet dryer. This challenge was overcome by modifying the dryer outlet to recirculate the maximum amount of propylene to storage during the initial startup of the PP unit reactor.

The project developers have created solutions to overcome the many challenges faced in starting operations of the BCPL petrochemical complex. BCPL’s petrochemical complex is a first step toward the buildout of a regional petrochemical hub and manufacturing renaissance in the plastics and chemicals sector in northeast India. Part 2 will provide an analysis on India’s northeast petrochemical region, and if a petrochemical hub can exist in the region.

Next month

Part 2 will appear in the May issue of Hydrocarbon Processing. 


Any views or opinions represented in this presentation are personal and belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that author may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any organization, company or individual.


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