What Is Chemical Cracking?

Chemical cracking is not a new process. But energy companies are now considering building cracking plants in places like the Western Marcellus and Utica Shale regions in the Northeast, where it would not have been economically feasible before. Here, Case Western Reserve University geologist Beverly Saylor explains the process of cracking chemicals:

Cracking means that you take hydrocarbons, or molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen, and you break them down into smaller molecular chains, still made up of carbon and hydrocarbon.

In some cases, you could use cracking to make gasoline out of heavier crude oil, and in other cases you could use cracking to take ethane, a natural gas, and use it to make ethylene.

Ethane has two carbon and six hydrogen atoms, and you would crack it — at very high temperatures — to make ethylene, with two carbon and only four hydrogen atoms.

The reason you’d want to make ethylene is that it’s a component of plastics, so HDPE and LDPE and PVC — all those things that you put into your recycling bin — are made partially out of ethylene. Essentially, we crack ethane to make ethylene to make plastic.

— Beverly Saylor, Case Western Reserve University

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