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Innovations in catalysis have delivered enormous value to the refining and petrochemical industries over the years. In an interview, Impact asks the presidents of two of Shell’s catalyst companies, Andy Gosse of CRI Catalyst Company (CRI) and Robert Trout of Criterion Catalysts & Technologies (Criterion), whether their catalysts can continue to be a source of competitive advantage for their customers.

robert trout

Robert Trout, Vice President, Criterion Catalysts & Technologies

Q.Let us focus first on the refining sector. Robert, perhaps you could characterise the principal challenges that face your customers?

Trout: One of the key issues is, of course, the increasingly difficult crude slate. With the possible exception of light tight oil, which is often of very good quality, the world is running out of easy-to-get, high-quality crudes. Consequently, many of our customers are beginning to look at the very heavy Venezuelan and Brazilian crude oils, for example, and at oil sands, but these are all extremely challenging feedstocks.

Meanwhile, product specifications are continuing to tighten, with major markets such as China, India and Russia embarking on clean fuel transportation programmes, and environmental emissions regulations are becoming increasingly stringent worldwide.

This is where we can come into play by helping customers to operate profitably under the increased challenges. For instance, by increasing the activity of our hydroprocessing catalysts, we are creating opportunities for refiners to process difficult crudes with existing assets or minimal capital expenditure, and to drive margin improvement through increased product yields and quality.

andy gosse

Andy Gosse, Vice President, CRI Catalyst Company

Q.Andy, what is the mood like in the petrochemicals sector?

 

Gosse: Interestingly, refiners and petrochemical companies have seen very different economic conditions in recent times.

Whereas many refiners are continuing to feel the effects of the global economic downturn of 2008, the petrochemicals industry has enjoyed a renaissance over the last couple of years.

There has been a lot of growth and increased demand for most chemical products, including ethylene and ethylene oxide, largely driven by growth in Asia.

But we are all well aware of the cyclic nature of the sector.

Historically, it has experienced alternating periods of limited supply leading to high prices and profit margins, followed by increases in production capacity that result in oversupply and reduced prices and profit margins.

Operators are keen to take steps to remain competitive, and yield or rate improvements through catalyst advances, such as for ethylene oxide production, are certainly part of these critical steps.

Q.Both sectors have come to rely on catalyst improvements to help them respond to the challenges that they face. But can CRI and Criterion continue to develop improvements into the future?

Gosse: I am confident that we can and the data backs this up.

For instance, 30 years ago, the selectivity of our ethylene oxide catalysts was about 70% and there was a general feeling that we were probably approaching the limits of what we could achieve.

But, since then, we have been on an incredible continuous improvement journey.

We have managed to improve our ethylene oxide catalyst year on year.

Today, its selectivity is about 90%, and it also has improved stability and life.

This means that our customers are using less ethylene in the manufacture of ethylene oxide, thereby using less energy and emitting less carbon dioxide, all of which brings bottom-line benefits.

It also means that CRI has become a leading player in the market and, more importantly, a source of strategic advantage for its customers.

Trout: We have a similar example of year-on-year improvements in hydroprocessing catalysts.

In the last 10 years, our scientists have unlocked catalyst activity increases that are some three times greater than those achieved over the previous 20 years.

That additional activity can translate to profitability for our customers through increased production and product yields, and extended cycle lengths.

What makes enhanced experimentation so remarkable is that it has significantly increased our rate of delivering innovation to our customers.

Q.What has enabled these improvements?

Trout: Both CRI and Criterion have been investing heavily in research and development and one of the important techniques to have emerged from this is enhanced experimentation.

This uses robotics and high-throughput testing with nano-flow reactors and it has dramatically, exponentially even, multiplied our ability to test different catalyst formulations. Successful prototypes are then evaluated quickly in micro-flow units with customer feeds and conditions.

What makes enhanced experimentation so remarkable is that it has significantly increased our rate of delivering innovation to our customers.

Gosse: Yes, it is hard to overstate the importance of enhanced experimentation to our businesses.

It is a key enabler for our scientists in continuing to  think creatively and to innovate.

By funding this activity, we have created an “engine” that generates dramatically more leads and exciting new areas for us to explore that would have been impractical to pursue otherwise.

It provides a funnel of opportunities that ultimately leads to the next generation of catalysts.

Q.Refiners’ crude diets are increasingly heavy and environmental pressures are undermining the market for heavy fuel oil.

What processes are available to refiners seeking an upgrading solution?

Trout: There are several actually. For example, we are seeing many refiners adding fixed-bed residue hydroconversion capacity.

This has many advantages over thermal technologies such as delayed coking, but getting the most out of the process is not easy.

We play at the heart of this, as the effective use of catalysts is the key to success.

Another option is ebullated-bed residue hydrocracking, a well-proven technology that creates value from even the most challenging residue feeds.

We have made several significant advances in recent years and have commercialised a family of catalysts that exhibits better sediment control and shows higher conversion activity.

These catalysts have proved to be very effective in upgrading notoriously difficult feeds, including vacuum residues from Middle Eastern, Urals and Mayan crude oils, and also in the treatment of bitumen to make synthetic crudes.

Q.Robert, you mentioned earlier that China, India and Russia are embarking on cleaner fuels programmes.

Are there any lessons that they can learn from Europe and the USA, which have already been down that path?

Trout: In Europe and the USA, businesses that invested in a timely manner were in a great position before the regulations came into force because their products were in high demand and they could charge a premium.

The alternative for some was to compromise by blending or using other costly solutions.

So, refiners that face tightening specifications should ask themselves: “Do we have the right assets to meet the new specifications?”

For instance, we have seen older units that are not designed to operate at the required severity.

If assets are robust enough, the unit technologists can begin to consider what catalyst combinations and processing environment they might require.

There are some outstanding catalytic and process solutions that they can leverage but a timely response is always key because these projects have long lead times.

Hydrocracking integrated with deepflash vacuum technology and a solvent deasphalting process has because a popular solution.

Q.Both CRI and Criterion have clearly developed state-of-the-art catalysts.

Will these perform equally well in any reactor?

Trout: No, not always, and that is a point to emphasise.

The performance of any reactor system is also a function of its design elements, including the internals.

A good set of reactor internals, such as those offered by Shell Global Solutions, makes additional reactor volume available for the catalyst and improves catalyst utilisation.

It is always preferable to optimise the design of the internals to match the catalyst.

Gosse: For instance, matching the design of the reactor internals with the hardware is of critical importance in many reactions where both liquid and gas are present,such as pyrolysis gasoline hydrogenation or aromatic saturation applications.

Using stateof-the-art reactor internals can help operators to maximise the effectiveness of their chosen catalyst and the available reactor volume.

Shell Global Solutions’ internals, for instance,can achieve nearly 100% uniform gas and liquid dispersion, which enables complete catalyst volume utilisation and reduces the potential for hot spots, which is also an important safety improvement.

Another example is in ethylene oxide.

With Shell Global Solutions, we license ethylene oxide technology, and we are working with our colleagues there to optimise the process with the catalyst further.

So, we are scrutinising the technology design and investigating whether we can improve the design to reduce the capital expenditure and/or the operating costs.

Q.Finally, how would you sum up CRI and Criterion’s plans for the future?

Trout: We reinvest a significant amount of our revenue in research and development because our strategy is to be a technology leader.

We must continue to push the boundaries in terms of catalyst performance not only to maintain our position but also because it is so important for our customers that we do.

Gosse: I could not agree more. Every percentage point that we improve the performance of a catalyst and every extra month of life that it has represent millions of dollars of bottom-line value to customers.

Industry wide, the extra benefit that customers have enjoyed as a result of these improvements is very significant.