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Conversations from the cutting edge of technology
Advanced technologies and game-changing innovations are vital for the energy industry, and behind every technological solution you are likely to find creative, passionate people. In this article, we profile three Shell experts whose fresh thinking has either helped to push the limits of what a technology can achieve or helped customers to apply technology to enhance their business’s performance.
GURMINDER SINGH - Downstream Licensing Sales Manager Asia Pacific, Shell Global Solutions (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd.
Q: Which of your projects has given you the most professional satisfaction?
I have been involved in numerous revamps, but a recent project with Hyundai Oilbank Co. Ltd was especially interesting.
They were keen to build a base oils manufacturing plant at Daesan, South Korea, because demand for Group II products is robust in the region.
At the same time, they asked us to explore whether they could use hydrocracker bottoms as the feed for this new plant.
Such a project could have a strong impact on a refinery’s economics, as this stream of unconverted oil has limited value otherwise.
There are a handful of plants that use hydrocracker bottoms in this way.
However, there are challenges to resolve and every situation is unique.
When licensing the technology for the 650,000-t/y base oil plant, we felt that it was vital for us to take a closer look and check on how this would integrate with the existing refinery.
We found that, to get the right amount of feed at the right quality, we would have to revamp the hydrocracker.
Moreover, to get the desired feed heaviness, we also needed to revamp the unit upstream of the hydrocracker, the vacuum distillation unit.
It was important to see the whole integrated picture.
When the plant comes on stream in 2014, Hyundai will become a key player in the lucrative Asian lubricant base oils market.
Q: What advice would you give to other refineries that are striving to remain competitive?
Sweat your assets.
That is always the first thing; make sure that you are exploiting the maximum returns from our existing asset base.
Small, inexpensive changes such as catalyst drop-in solutions and/or the addition of new reactor internals in hydroprocessing units can be an extremely cost-effective way to improve unit economics or to adapt to changing product specifications.
To make more money or margin, some companies will think about going big.
Before they begin to install new process units or build a new facility, I always recommend that refiners should talk to licensors, catalyst companies and contractors, and that they should involve them at the scouting or front-end engineering phase when they are taking their first steps to shape the project.
A project has to be tuned to a refinery’s specific circumstances, but experience of other, similar projects can help to ensure consideration of a wide range of technical options.
Q: What is the outlook for refiners?
The refining industry has a long-term future because there will be demand for its products for many years to come.
Nevertheless, it is likely to remain a hugely competitive arena and those with highly flexible assets are likely to enjoy greater margins.
This is where technology can help.
The configuration of the units, the type of catalysts and the type of reactor internals all determine how effectively a hydroprocessing plant can help a business to fulfil its objectives.
However, the good news for refiners is that there is a huge amount of innovation and research and development going on in these areas, as technology licensors and catalyst companies strive to help them to meet their challenges.
ROB VAN DEN BERG - General Manager Coal Gasification Technology, Shell (China) Projects & Technology Ltd.
Q: How has Shell gasification technology developed over the years?
The Shell coal gasification process is highly regarded in the industry; it is very efficient, safe and reliable. Nevertheless, we are always trying to improve it.
However, because the level of investment required for Shell’s coal gasification units has been a barrier for some projects, we mandated a special research group to explore simplifying the technology.
The key is that we have devised a different way to cool the hot syngas.
In the traditional Shell syngas cooler design, the hot gas passes along steel tubes containing water and releases its heat to the water.
As the gas cools, steam forms inside the tubes.
However, the hardware that is required is a complicated beast – in effect, it is an almost 100-m-long cooler.
In the new design, which uses novel bottom water-quench technology, the hot gas passes directly into a water bath.
Instead of raising steam separately using expensive equipment, the steam is now generated by mixing the hot syngas with water.
The devil is in the detail, though.
Ensuring that the very hot syngas is cooled in this way is something of an art form.
Nevertheless, the capital cost of a plant based on this concept can be up to 35% less than one based on standard technology.
As a result, we have had a lot of interest from chemical companies keen to explore whether the hybrid gasifier, as we call it, would be a good fit for them.
Q: Has the hybrid gasifier been applied?
Actually, a demonstration plant is now gearing up for operations.
It has been a long story of novelty creation and development, but we are now extremely close to starting up and producing syngas from this new type of gasifier.
It is very exciting.
We will be firing up the burners soon! When that happens, it will switch from being experimental technology that exists only in the minds, models and drawings of the technologists who created it, to being real, proven technology.
Q: Do you expect the hybrid gasifier to replace the standard technology?
Well, the conventional process still has a big role to play.
But now we have two different processes that we can use to gasify coal, each with its own merits.
Although the standard one has a higher capital cost, its capacity and efficiency are also higher, and so we expect that to be the preferred option for large projects or for power generation.
However, when low capital cost is more important than efficiency, the hybrid gasifier will play a key role.
In fact, one of the most promising applications is chemicals production in China.
Gasification is helping to unlock abundant coal reserves as a feedstock for the chemicals value chain.
So, companies are looking at it with a view to generating syngas that will feed, for instance, a process that produces olefins or synthetic natural gas (pipeline quality gas).
FRANK GEUZEBROEK - General Manager, Gas Separation Research and Development, Shell Global Solutions International BV.
Q: What prompted you to suggest that Shell should consider buying Cansolv?
There were several reasons. First, the oil and gas reserves that the industry is exploiting are increasingly high in sulphur and, as we know, SO2 emission regulations are tightening around the world. This is an increasingly difficult issue for Shell and Shell Global Solutions’ customers, but Shell Cansolv’s SO2 scrubbing technology can help facilities to achieve compliance.
So, it was a great opportunity to bolster our portfolio of gas processing technologies. Shell Cansolv’s technology is the industry’s leading regenerable SO2 scrubbing process: 15 units are in operation and more are in development.
Second, we identified that the CO2 technology might be able to contribute to future CCS projects. The CO2 and SO2 technologies are very similar – both are regenerable amine processes – but, unlike the SO2 technology, the CO2 technology was unproven. Since then, the technology has advanced. Two projects that will deploy CANSOLV CO2 technology are under construction, and a third is at the design stage.
Q: What differentiates the technology from alternative solutions?
One of the key aspects is that it is regenerable. There are several types of non-regenerable SO2 scrubbers, but these generate aqueous and solid waste streams that usually need to be disposed of to landfill or wastewater treating systems. In contrast, the CANSOLV SO2 scrubbing system uses a proprietary amine technology and reduces effluents to a minimum. Moreover, SO2 emission levels of as low as 20 ppm are achievable.
So, you can see that it is an extremely innovative and effective solution. The developers, John Sarlis and Leo Hakka who were two of the Cansolv founders, have done a remarkable job. Since the acquisition, we have combined our efforts to take the SO2 scrubbing and CO2 capture technologies to the next level. For instance, together, we have been addressing scale-up issues and we are currently developing a next generation of solvent that is designed to minimise the impact of the capture process on the power plant’s energy efficiency.
Q: Where is the technology being deployed?
Well, Shell Cansolv’s reference list is growing rapidly around the world and in different applications, including up- and downstream oil and gas, and coal- and gas-fired power stations.
Perhaps one of the most exciting potential applications is the Peterhead CCS project.
Together with the power firm SSE, Shell is looking to develop the world’s first full-scale CCS project at a gas-fired power plant.
The project would capture 10 Mt of CO2 over 10 years from SSE’s Peterhead gas-fired power station in Aberdeenshire, UK, and store it permanently in a depleted reservoir more than 2 km under the floor of the North Sea so that it no longer contributes to climate change.
What would make this such a significant development is that it reduces the CO2 emissions by 90% from what is already the cleanest burning fossil fuel, natural gas. This means that such electricity generated from natural gas would be defined by the UK as clean energy.
JOHN SMEGAL - Senior Staff Research Chemist, Hydroprocessing, Criterion Catalysts & Technologies Even after 27 years in the industry, John Smegal still gets excited at the mere suggestion of discovering the next big breakthrough in catalyst technology. His natural tendency towards discovery helped to lead the development of more than 20 catalysts, including Criterion’s industry game changers CENTINEL and CENTERA™.
Q: What is the most significant innovation in catalysis that you have seen during your career?
It would probably be the research that culminated in CENTINEL. If you look at a plot of catalyst performance improvements through the years (see figure below), you see that from 1980 to about 1998 the improvements were very gradual. There were improvements but they tended to be incremental improvements of existing catalysts and technology. But that changed in 1998.
This is because we figured out a way to improve the intrinsic activity of the active sites on a catalyst. This was a hugely significant advance, and we capitalised on that innovation by enhancing the alumina supports and using promoters and additives to unlock additional improvements. The result was CENTINEL, which served as the workhorse of the initial ULSD wave in Europe. Moreover, this provided the platform for our next generation of catalyst technology, CENTERA.
As the graph shows, the activity improvements that we have achieved over the past 10 years are almost three times greater than over the previous 20.
History of Criterion’s increases in hydrotreating catalyst activity.
Q: How has the catalyst development process changed over the years?
It is a lot faster! About six years ago, we invested heavily in high-throughput experimentation equipment and this has really accelerated the discovery and development process.
For example, one new piece of high-throughput equipment that we use for primary screening can test many catalysts in a short time. Those that do not show promise are eliminated straight away and the rest progress to the secondary screening phase. The raditional approach is to test one catalyst at a time, but the high-throughput apparatus features 16 miniature reactors, each of which can test a catalyst using real feedstocks and provide representative results.
The great thing about being able to test a large number of catalysts is that you can evaluate a wide variety of approaches in a short period. In the past, because you had a limited number of reactors, you had to rely on scientific intuition and select the catalysts that you thought had the best chance of achieving your objectives. But high-throughput equipment enables us to get really creative and to look at a lot of things.
Q: Given all these advances, should we expect the magnitude of those performance improvements to begin to tail off?
That is a very good question. I have been working in catalyst development since 1985 and it does surprise me that these improvements have not somehow plateaued. The issues facing refiners, especially changing feedstock slates and product specifications, are increasingly challenging.
Nevertheless, through the persistence and reativity of our scientists in technology centres around the world we are still finding ways to improve these catalysts. High-throughput experimentation, improved understanding of catalysis and customer focus will enable us to continue developing new, fit-for-purpose catalysts very quickly. There is still much more to explore.
CENTERA is a Criterion Catalysts & Technologies trademark.