Nina Liem, General Manager – Chemicals Catalyst Technology

How I lead the R&D catalyst team for new solutions to support the energy transition

Nina Liem is General Manager – Chemicals Catalyst Technology. She is based in Amsterdam and works at the Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam (STCA).

By Nina Liem, General Manager – Chemicals Catalyst Technology on Jun 11, 2021

With a background in chemical engineering, Nina has worked in the chemical industry for over 30 years. Since 2008, Nina has worked at Shell, where she first developed marketing materials on liquified natural gas (LNG) projects before moving into an LNG programme manager role. Today, Nina leads the R&D chemicals catalyst team to develop solutions for a range of initiatives including producing chemical products via Shell’s gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology, methane abatement in shipping and renewable aviation fuel.

In this five-question interview for “How I Make Every Molecule Matter,” Nina shares her initial career progression around LNG, the industry evolutions she has observed and why she is inspired by research teams to continually push limits of what was previously possible.

1. Could you share some of your experience regarding LNG?

Prior to Shell, I worked on the borderline between technology and the market. I was always scouting for market opportunities and seeing how I could work with an in-house team to develop products. My first role at Shell involved developing the value propositions towards major resource holders on why working with Shell on LNG projects could be of value to them. This work took me from floating LNG projects to the use of LNG as fuel for heavy transport and shipping.

Shell has worked to decarbonise many of the areas and industries that are historically difficult to decarbonise. Initially, when the LNG fuel project started, we focused on heavy-duty trucking. Diesel is used as the main fuel source in trucks, but because of upcoming legislation requiring emissions reduction of CO2 and particulates, trucking companies are looking for cleaner fuel alternatives.

LNG is the condensed version of natural gas; by its nature, it is cleaner burning and contains fewer contaminants than diesel. It is a good alternative fuel. However, because it is cryogenic, there was no infrastructure to put LNG into a truck. There were no retail fuel stations equipped with LNG and trucks were not equipped to have storage tanks suitable for LNG.

We worked with the industry to try and change that. Over the years, more alternatives for cleaner fuels in trucking came into the market and our emphasis on LNG as fuel also started to include the shipping industry and cruise lines. We still needed cryogenic lines and storage, for which we work with the shipping industry and the engine world.

The engines that are on a diesel truck or ship are designed for burning diesel or heavy fuel oil. You can use them to run on dual fuel, to also burn natural gas, but this introduces the risk of slippage. Meaning, some natural gas may go out of the tailpipe unburned, thus emitting small amounts of methane instead of CO2. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is even more potent than CO2.

We recognised that we were promoting a fuel that is as a whole, cleaner burning, but which comes with potential tailpipe issues that could undermine the solution’s credibility. So we worked with the catalyst business to see if we could find a solution.

Our colleagues in the R&D catalyst team developed a methane oxidation catalyst. It was recognised by industry as one of the best working aftertreatment catalysts that could convert methane into CO2 so that it would not escape through the tailpipe. That’s how I got to know Shell’s catalyst business and how I eventually came on board.

2. How did you move from LNG product development to managing the R&D catalyst team?

When my current position opened up, the business was looking for someone who could make connections throughout Shell. I was very familiar with how Shell operates and how they work on gas projects, so I could make those connections.

I enjoyed working on the methane abatement solution we developed and I truly believe in our ability to facilitate a bigger goal by developing catalysts that can enable chemical reactions previously deemed too challenging. Natural gas is one of the fuels that Shell believes can help societies transition towards a cleaner energy future.

We have a very wide portfolio of catalyst R&D projects aimed at further improving existing chemical processes which use natural gas, as well as at enabling novel processes, like re-using plastics or electrochemically converting carbon dioxide to a useful product. I work with our R&D team to ensure that they have the resources they need. I am keen that they move fast through the funnel so that we can deploy a product to the market.

When it comes to the methane abatement catalyst the market for LNG as fuel is also in development and has gone through a few cycles. Developments are ongoing both in trucking, shipping and other applications. We realise we need to develop the system together with industry.

Now we’re in the demonstration phase where our researchers are busy doing 1,000-hour tests to prove that the methane abatement system works on an industrial engine.

3. What other catalyst development projects are you working on?

There are many products the catalyst team is working on, including catalysts for methane abatement, ethylene oxide and gas-to-liquids (GTL) processes, where our catalysts enable natural gas to be transformed into useful products.

We’re also looking at renewable feedstocks, which is an area that is increasingly becoming more important. We look at turning used cooking oils into refinery feedstocks and whether we can use solar power to create hydrogen and combine that with captured CO2 to convert into useful products.

A good case in point is how recently, in the Netherlands, there was some publicity around a passenger flight operated by our national aviation company, KLM, from Amsterdam to Madrid. It was partly powered by Shell’s synthetic kerosene, which was made from captured CO2 and hydrogen generated from renewable power from solar panels positioned on the roof of our research centre in Amsterdam and windmills in the Netherlands.[1]

We used CO2 that we got from a farm as well as from Shell’s refinery in Pernis. And thanks to several catalysts that were developed in the catalyst technology team, we were able to turn that into aviation-grade kerosene.

With the catalyst that we developed, the conversion could be made at much more moderate temperatures than what was usually required. This has a big impact on the materials that can be used because rather than looking at almost rocket fuel-type of temperatures, we’re looking at more normal, furnace type of temperatures, and that makes a big difference in the economics of future design.

It was really a big achievement. The production of this fuel is nowhere near world-scale yet, but we reached a first step to prove that it is possible.

4. Could you provide a glimpse into your experience working within the R&D catalyst team and across Shell?

The competitive advantage we have at Shell Catalysts & Technologies is that we’re not only producing catalysts, but we’re using them ourselves. Shell is an owner-operator and our colleagues know how these products work within Shell assets.

I think I can safely say that our colleagues at Shell are our toughest customers. They ask the hardest question and are not easily convinced to take on new development.

The challenge in R&D is balancing development for the catalysts we are selling today with what we may need in 10 years’ time. It’s also exciting. Shell has announced the Powering Progress strategy, which outlines how Shell can and must play a role as the world accelerates towards a cleaner energy future. I think that Shell Catalysts & Technologies is perfectly positioned to help drive those future goals by developing the technologies that can make future energy systems possible.

A large part of our work is developing those technologies that are not yet on the market. We may not be there today, but we can be in the coming years. In R&D management, we are looking at how to strike that right balance between focusing on today’s needs while also driving innovation.

5. What are you most looking forward to?

It may be hard for people who are not active in the chemical industry to understand the impact of catalysts because they are “invisible”, hidden in the reactors and they can be very small. They can literally be like the size of chocolate sprinkles. But they can make a big difference in chemical reactions. They can enable a lot of things that are otherwise not possible.

That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about working for Shell Catalysts & Technologies, because we work on technologies that matter, that can make a difference. It is about pushing the needle, going further and making possible what was previously seen as impossible through catalysts.

[1] Ellen Proper, “KLM Makes First Regular Flight With Sustainable Synthetic Fuel,” Bloomberg, 8 Feb. 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-08/klm-makes-first-regular-flight-with-sustainable-synthetic-fuel#:~:text=Air%20France%2DKLM%20operated%20a,sustainably%20derived%20synthetic%20aviation%20fuel.&text=KLM%20also%20operated%20the%20first,kerosene%20and%20used%20cooking%20oil

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