Future proof technology

How I drive energy transition collaborations to evolve and future-proof technology

Hear from an expert how technologies can be future-proofed and evolved, and the importance of learning something new every day.

By Bart Suijkerbuijk on Jun 7, 2022

Bart Suijkerbuijk is Global Senior Business Development Manager, Chemicals & Renewables and Energy Solutions, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He has worked at Shell for 13 years; prior to the energy industry, Bart worked in pharmaceuticals as a chemist in drug discovery. He received a doctorate in Organic Chemistry and Catalysis from Utrecht University in 2007.

In this interview on “How I Make Every Molecule Matter”, Bart discusses his perspectives on evolving and future-proofing technologies, such as the Shell Renewable Refining Process and Shell Fiber Conversion Technology, as well as the importance of learning something new every day.

1. What makes you excited about your role?

I coordinate new opportunities for energy transition applications by working as a spider-in-the-web across businesses, including Shell Catalysts & Technologies, Shell Low Carbon Fuels, Shell Chemicals and Shell Trading and Supply. I help bring new technologies to market, or old technologies to a new market, and I drive the timeline to ensure all individuals work as a team to gain that first customer deal. Within that framework, I also lead a deal team on several opportunities.

For new business deals, I work to build new sources of value for Shell Catalysts & Technologies and Shell as a whole with a medium- to long-term focus. I also focus on non-traditional dealmaking, such as sublicensing and collaboration agreements.

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2. How do you maintain a medium- to long-term focus when bringing technologies to market?

I keep perspective on how technologies evolve and the availability of new feedstocks. For example, if we consider the future of the circular system, we will first need the same products from (new) renewable resources and, eventually, perhaps more sustainable and circular products, too.

Currently, in the chemicals and fuels space, we are still looking for the same product molecules from different starting materials and different feedstocks. In fuels, customers are still demanding diesel and kerosene (or sustainable aviation fuel) and in chemicals, they are still looking for naphtha and ethylene. In chemicals, we are looking to source this ethylene by using recycled plastics to make new plastics.

I think a big change will need to happen in the whole energy and materials world where we will eventually have to use different types of molecules. We will have to innovate and use different molecules that can create versatile and resilient products, but at the same time, be able to decompose at a faster rate than current plastics can.

That’s an example of how I keep a long-term perspective in mind. Generally, the energy and materials world likes to understand the market and is very reluctant to enter into something new unless the solution is proven. That’s where I see opportunity for Shell Catalysts & Technologies as a technology provider to not only offer customers the best technologies available, but to help increase confidence as we embark essentially into the unknown.

3. What is the potential evolution for the Shell Renewable Refining Process (SRRP)?

SRRP is in a market that is highly competitive, both in terms of the technology and the sourcing of feedstock. At Shell, we identified very early on that sustainable aviation fuel is a key differentiating product that these SRRP units need to produce, rather than just maximising diesel outputs.

The current incarnation of the technology is very similar to typical hydroprocessing technology, which has been developed on the back of some typical molecules that you find in petroleum and in crude oil. Now, we can still apply or repurpose those technologies for some of the feedstocks for SRRP. The industry calls them hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) feedstocks.

Learn more about Co-processing technologies

However, those typical feedstocks will either run out, or they’re just in short supply. So SRRP will have to continuously reinvent itself in order to continue making the molecules the market needs, while using different feedstocks or an evolving feedstock slate over time.

In the next 5 to 10 years, we will need a clear evolution. At the same time, we are experiencing huge shifts in the global energy system, and no one knows to what extent hydrogen, battery electric vehicles or renewable fuels will win this “competition” between fuels and electrons.

This is an uncertainty that people are considering in the energy transition. Investors need to ensure that their investments can be future proof and that their capital expenditure investments are not wasted in a project that, in five years’ time, is going to be obsolete.

This is quite different from where we were a decade ago when people wanted to build a single project that could last for the next 40 years. Today, they need to have a project or technology – whether it’s a line of sight from this incarnation of the technology into the next version – that can then take different feedstocks or produce different molecules at a lower carbon footprint throughout the energy transition.

SRRP has that ability to evolve as a technology and amalgamate with add-ons that we are developing, such as IH2 technology, which is a waste-to-fuels process that efficiently converts a wide range of organic wastes to liquid hydrocarbon transportation fuels. If we look even further into the future, the end game is that about half of the SRRP lineup can be repurposed for a process to literally pull feedstock from thin air in the form of CO2 and use that CO2 to make a building block mix called syngas, which we can use to make all kinds of products.

Watch the webinar, Bringing clarity to complexity: Developing your renewable fuels roadmap

4. What is the potential evolution for Shell Fiber Conversion Technology (SFCT)?

Shell Fiber Conversion Technology (SFCT) produces products that Shell is interested in from cellulosic biomass. In analogy to crude oil, it cracks the “bottom of the barrel” of cellulosic biomass. SFCT can help enable production of cellulosic ethanol and also unlock additional valuable components from biomass, such as green hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) feedstock and protein.

One of the key points of discovery for us is how SFCT produces high-protein animal feed when corn is used as a feedstock. The animal feed is very high in protein and is expected to command a premium in the market.

There is an analogy between SFCT and SRRP and future-proofing the technology. The initial feedstock for SFCT is waste from non-food grade corn ethanol manufacturing, which is converted to fuel and protein feedstock. If we look at the next generation of fiber conversion, we can consider how the fiber component of other grains and seeds feedstocks can be subjected equally well to the technology to be the feedstocks of the future. We can, for instance, shift from using corn as feedstock to feedstock that can grow much faster or more efficiently in different climates.

Through its production of both fuel and food from waste materials, SFCT may become essential in resolving the fuel vs food debate.

Learn more about waste-to-energy technologies

5. What is a key quality to have when considering how technologies can be future-proofed and evolved?

There is something new to learn every day, whether it be about the business, technology, commercial applications, dealmaking or relationship building. I learn from reading and working with other people every day. At the same time, this comes with an understanding that the more you know, the better you recognise how little you know. That is the driver behind the concept of adopting a “learning mindset”.

The nature of our business is interdisciplinary and requires you to interact with a lot of people, and through that you learn a tremendous amount, including from younger or newer colleagues who have a different view of the world from having grown up in a different time.

As I’ve worked in different parts of Shell over the years, I’ve learned to do new things that I felt I had zero education for, but that the company or manager trusted that I could do successfully. At first the learning curve seemed daunting, but after a while it becomes deeply fulfilling because you get to really develop and reinvent yourself every couple of years, which is great.

Discover the collaborative process behind future-proofing technologies: A path to the future through holistic and integrated solutions