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SISAS

petrochemical complex / Pioltello - Rodano / 1947 - 2000 / 2009, 2010

 

The origin of SISAS-Società Italiana Serie Acetica Sintetica dates back to 1947. The war was over yet and a young entrepreneur called Giacomo Falciola began to manufacture acetic acid in Pioltello, not far from Milan. The acid was roughly synthesized through the calcium carbide-acetylene process. In spite of its scarce production (just 3 t/d), Falciola's business was soon picked on by the major Italian chemical enterprise Montecatini, which aimed to eliminate every possible competitors by acting on prices. While barely trying to survive, Falciola discovered that the German BASF was developing an innovative process to obtain acetylene from natural gas (methane). Meanwhile, in Italy, AGIP (the then-former oil state company) researches revealed large underground deposits of natural gas in the Po Valley. Foresaw the opportunities, Falciola traveled to BASF headquarters in Ludwigshafen to negotiate the purchase of methane cracking license. And succeeded.

 

 

Financed by Banca Commerciale Italiana, the methane cracking plant was realized in 1953 and constantly enlarged during the whole decade, laying the foundations of a large petrochemical plant. For this purpose, SISAS signed a contract with AGIP/SNAM for the supply of natural gas, being then the first company in Italy to use methane for chemical purposes. Downstream to the acetylene plant a new facility was set up, to synthesize acetaldehyde and, from that, ethyl acetate and acetic acid. The expansion of the site during the years 1955-1965 was strictly related to the use and re-use of by-products, pursuing process and economic integration. For example, the gas resulting from the acetylene recover was used as fuel in the thermoelectric power plant, internalizing so the cost for power and steam supply. More relevant was the idea of Falciola and his collaborators to use the acetaldehyde surplus - produced in way too high for the then-Italian market - to manufacture butanol and octanol, both chemical intermediates for paints, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. The butanol plant was set up by SISAS with the cooperation of Distillerie Italiane, while the octanol plant was realized with the help of the Japanese license owner Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation. The hydrogen necessary to these last processes was obtained through the fractioning of methane cracking by-product gas. On the other side, oxygen production was ensured by a joint-venture between SISAS and Linde, called Pantogas, which facilities (10000 mc/h oxygen/nitrogen) were established in Pioltello too.

 

 

During the first half of the 1960s the natural gas deposits in Northern Italy began to empty, due to the extensive exploitation for industrial purposes. SISAS production system, exclusively based on methane cracking, was at serious risk. The solution was found, again, thanks to the relationship between Falciola and BASF. At the time, the German company was developing an experimental process to obtain acetylene (and ethylene) from crude oil called "submerged-flame cracking". The new plant went on stream in 1966, along with several new production lines: vinyl acetate monomer (VAM), butyl and isobutyl acetate (all acetylene-based), phthalic anhydride (BASF license), plasticizers (from in-house octanol/butanol).

 

 

In the 1970s SISAS experienced a most dramatic crisis. The 1973 oil shock and the following international economic instability forced the company to rethink its whole production system. In the same year, the founder Giacomo Falciola died too, leaving the drive to his sons Luciano and Alberto. Due to the fivefold increase of crude oil price, the submerged-flame cracking was abandoned. The decision to cease completely the acetylene-based production followed in 1977, due to the evident obsolescence and unprofitability (several companies obtained the same products from ethylene at a significantly lower cost). This meant the gradual stop of more than the half of the site: methane cracking, acetaldehyde, acetic acid, ethyl acetate and VAM. Their overall production capacity was reduced from 130 t/d of 1976 to just 12 in 1977, and down to 0 until 1983. On the other side, the profitable plants - phthalic anhydride and plasticizers - were improved, while new ones were realized: methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), isophorone, nonylphenol and di-acetone alcohol (all BASF licensed). The turning point was reached once the new management decided to stop working on licenses and, consequently, to set up its own research facility. The focus was moved on innovative processes in the field of solvents and resins/plastics intermediates. Among them, methyl isobutyl carbinol (MIBC), hexylene glycol and sorbitol began to be manufactured in 1978. But the most important achieved result was the synthesis of isophthalic acid (IPA), at that time manufactured by an american company worldwide. Beyond any expectation, it was a success! A large portion of the site was restructured to host the new facilities (75000 t/y).

 

 

During the 1980s and especially in the 1990s environmental awareness arose within the citizens and public administrations directly interested by SISAS activity. Already in 1986 the Milan Court sentenced that SISAS had to reclaim its large underground storage of carbon black (300000 t), which was accumulated in the factory yard between 1950 and 1980 as a by-product of acetylene production. The company refused to proceed, boosting then the conflict with local communities and regional authorities. The day to face out came in september 2000, when the sudden interruption of raw materials supply forced the management to admit that the company's financial situation was dramatic. More than 1000 billions of Italian Liras of debts accumulated through wrong investments, plus the unfavorable Euro/Dollar exchange rate, led the company to declare bankruptcy in 2001. The site was then suddenly closed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Demolition in progress, summer 2010.

 

 

 

 

references

 

books

SISAS SpA (1997), Enrico Toti 4, Arti Grafiche Meroni, Lissone.

 

documents

Greenpeace reports about waste disposal and soil reclamation at the former SISAS site (only in Italian):

Una sporca storia, 28/03/2011

Dossier nerofumo ex-SISAS, 19/05/2011

Il mistero dei rifiuti scomparsi, 06/10/2011

Rifiuti illegali made in Italy, 13/12/2011 

 

A case-referent study testing the connection between occupational exposures at SISAS plant and lung cancer diffusion:

Mortality from lung cancer in an acetylene and phthalic anhydride plant, 11/03/1983

 

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