By Paul Himelfarb and Clive Griffiths on Apr 20, 2020
How can advances in nickel catalyst technology enable hydrogenation units to operate more profitably?
On April 30, 2020 Paul Himelfarb and Clive Griffiths will be speakers on a live webcast, moderated by Hydrocarbon Processing, on “Capturing Additional Value from Your Hydrogenation Unit: Key insights derived from supporting high-performing units around the world”. From their extensive on-the-ground experience, Himelfarb and Griffiths will discuss how operators can optimise hydrogenation unit performance to unlock maximum value.
Paul Himelfarb is the general manager for chemical catalysts at Shell Catalysts & Technologies. Currently, his global research and development (R&D) team is focused on developing novel base and noble metal catalysts to offer solutions for customers in the energy transition.
Clive Griffiths is a technical services director for Shell Catalysts & Technologies. Griffiths provides leadership to technical teams specialising in nickel-based hydrogenation applications to create and deliver customer value.
In this Q&A, Himelfarb and Griffiths discuss the market challenges and opportunities hydrogenation unit operates have today. They discuss how their work in Shell’s customer-focused R&D programs can optimise catalyst systems in both emerging and conventional markets.
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What excites you most about your work?
Himelfarb: Even after many years, there are still many opportunities at the fundamental level to be discovered. We have tremendous talent across our global community, and in many regards, I see myself as a conductor of a diverse and focused R&D orchestra. I enjoy working on the interface of business and research to deliver solutions that generate customer value and enhance performance.
Griffiths: I’ve been involved in process design and catalysts from the mid-1960s. I’m always amazed by how reactions and catalyst interactions at the molecular level can be scaled up to the commercial units we build today. Still, we use empirical models to design, develop, and build plants, and we still can’t see what actually happens. I’m driven by developing a new lab-scale concept and seeing it used commercially in a full-scale plant.
What challenges do customers have with their hydrogenation units, and what solutions do you provide?
Griffiths: In today’s operations we find challenges emanating from many areas. Each hydrogenated product is driven by different parameters and issues, which vary from operator to operator. We respond to solving issues with feed quality, feed rate, selectivity issues, pressure drop, and maximising life and activity. Future challenges include variation in feeds to add value in a different market, as well as increasing feed rates to improve product quality.
Himelfarb: Our new product development funnel is built on the goal of identifying and removing customer challenges. It is these very challenges that form our R&D product development targets and that we seek to solve when we launch new products.
Our R&D and technical service teams work closely to ensure that we offer the optimal customer solution. Examples of this include testing programs we delivered for customers, where we carried out test work to safely maximise operating windows, as well as when we kicked off dedicated programs to increase sulphur tolerance aimed at extending the time between customer turnarounds.
Unit monitoring can provide a tremendous advantage as it allows us to optimise catalysts in operation and proactively identify potential problems before they arise.
Griffiths: Companies are more and more aware of the safety issues involved in hydrogenation. Shell internals help minimise unwanted temperature gradients that can result in premature shutdowns. Customers have seen significant increases in margins from receiving our technical support.
Himelfarb: I lead a team focused on proactively developing safety solutions within our catalyst applications, which helps to ensure that we deliver leading solutions in safety performance.
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What is innovative about Shell Catalysts & Technologies’ nickel hydrogenation catalyst portfolio?
Griffiths: We can supply nickel catalysts from a wide range of products. Each has its own characteristics suitable for a range of units in the aromatic hydrogenation market. The final selection may be specific to a unit or customer and hence requires a detailed evaluation to get the correct solution.
Himelfarb: We manage our innovation funnel through four phases: discover, develop, demonstrate, and deliver. Success in innovation requires seamless integration across our teams from the customer-facing organisation through R&D to manufacturing.
It is important that we look to solve the “right problems”. For example, we have recently applied our deep understanding of nickel catalyst fundamentals specifically around sulphur tolerance. Recent breakthroughs have given us a better understanding of how and where sulphur is deposited on the catalyst surface, and this allows us to customise catalysts to maximise sulphur tolerance. With this, we developed the recently launched and novel nickel-impregnated catalyst KL6567 and KL6568, which are already delivering significant value improvement for our aromatic saturation customers.
We have world-class expertise that has led to breakthrough catalyst improvements in both our impregnated and co-precipitated catalysts portfolio. Our diverse teams of specialists are dedicated to Ni catalyst development, and their sole goal is to deliver “out of the box” solutions.
How are catalyst systems customised for both emerging and conventional markets?
Griffiths: The new product range includes impregnated catalysts that use in-house support technology to maintain nickel dispersion at a higher nickel content. This technology helps to process heavier feeds as the market moves to refinery-and-chemical plant integration.
Himelfarb: We have built a strong reputation across our current range of conventional markets, which in turn has given us the experience to optimise nickel catalyst solutions. For adjacent markets, we will continue with our customised development approach. We adapt to a range of variables and optimise products to ensure they deliver maximum customer value. Some of the many variables used to develop customised solutions include Ni content, Ni surface area, particle shape, strength, and pore structure.
We evaluate every market sector with the goal of offering unique solutions (e.g. markets ranging from kerosene to resins) that provide customised solutions to both our new customers and existing relationships. We are constantly expanding the deep expertise and knowledge gained through our global technical support network and world-class R&D centers to enhance the value we deliver to our business partners.