Standing beneath a tangle of pipes, ductwork, and grated catwalks at BASF’s massive ethylene unit in this small refining city on the Gulf Coast, Andy Miller pointed to a large metal box a few feet above his head.
Inside, a fire burning at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit produced an industrial-scale whine.
“If you look up into this little peephole, you’ll be able to see some of the firing,” Miller said.
The orange glow is just one sign of an historic transformation occurring in the U.S. chemical industry and stretching from Western Pennsylvania to the Texas coast. The plant was recently modified to pipe ethane—a key component found in natural gas, especially in shale formations—through its furnaces.
The plant can make more than two billion of pounds a year of ethylene, a key component of plastic that’s used in everything from diapers to antifreeze to plastic bags.