A PETROCHEMICALS firm is “cracking on” with futureproofing operations after hailing the initial impact of a factory conversion.

Sabic says a decision to modify its flagship Cracker plant, which makes goods for food packaging, has already provided the business with fresh impetus.

The company has adapted the plant, based at Wilton, near Redcar, to take US ethane gas as a manufacturing material, proving it is “here to stay for another generation”.

Bosses say the change has made the base more costeffective and one of the most flexible of its type in Europe, since ethane is cheaper than naphtha fuel, which has previously been used on the Cracker.

The factory will still process naphtha, as well as propane, butane and condensates as feedstocks, but officials say the ethane move will provide extra flexibility against a fluctuating energy market.

They added a new partnership with a shipping company also means Sabic will receive an extra 30 per cent of cargo compared to rival vessels, which will reduce transport costs.

Speaking at a ceremony to welcome the GasChem Beluga, which will bring ethane from Houston to the Cracker, John Bruijnooge, Sabic’s Teesside site director, said senior officials were content with its progress.

Confirming work was now underway after testing, he told the Echo: “We are cracking on with it and are very happy about it.

“It is a very complex procedure to make modifications to a working project and take it from paper to the point where it actually works.

“The Sabic team has done all of this to plan and the support from the company for the investment is being put to good use.

“We are returning the benefits of that to the mother company.”

Mr Bruijnooge added the size of the Beluga should give the company an advantage over rival Ineos, which has already welcomed shipments of US ethane to a Scottish base, since its tanks have been built to carry greater loads.

He added: “This ship can carry 30 per cent more than those that go to Ineos in Grangemouth and is another piece in the puzzle, while keeping costs lower.”

The Echo understands half of what the Cracker produces goes into Sabic’s polyethylene Wilton plant, which is used to make items such as packaging, with the other half shipped to Germany, where it is used in polyethylene plants and other factories to help make goods such as milk bottles and car dashboards.

Speaking earlier this year, Mr Bruijnooge said the Cracker conversion will support work for more than 1,000 people, with Sabic’s 600-plus team aided by a similar number across supporting services.

However, he refused to rule out potential further expansion, saying Sabic officials have yet to “slap the door in my face” over plans to knock down old assets, which could pave the way for the company’s growth or that of other firms moving to the site.

The upgrade included the conversion of the Cracker and its 17 furnaces, as well as the building of an ethane terminal at a sister North Tees site, between Port Clarence and Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool.