Illustration of Jeff Pro discussing hydrocracking product development.

How I shape hydrocracking products for petrochemicals and plastic circularity

By Jeff Pro, Hydrocracking Market Specialist on Oct 4, 2021

Jeff Pro is the Hydrocracking Market Specialist at Shell Catalysts & Technologies. Based in Houston, Texas, Jeff has worked at Shell since 2008 and specialises in hydrocracking product development, technology and R&D deployment.

For this interview series on “How I Make Every Molecule Matter”, Jeff discusses how he started his career in polymers, how hydrocracking products are reflecting a transition away from traditional fuels and how his current work may support plastic circularity, a concept that considers sustainability across the entire plastics life cycle rather than only at the end of a product’s life.1

Q: What is your role in the development and deployment of hydrocracking products?

Jeff Pro: My primary role is making sure that we have the right hydrocracking products to meet the right customer requirements. We are already seeing changes in feed and product operations now: many refiners are moving away from optimising distillation ranges (gasoline, diesel, etc.) to targeting specific molecule groups for petrochemicals.

To me, hydrocracking is very relevant to the energy transition because it is an integral part of the industry’s future. I make sure that we have a hydrocracking product and R&D pipeline that meets today’s needs while also considering these technologies’ future applications.

Learn more about what energy transition means to Shell Catalysts & Technologies

Q: Can you give an example of how a hydrocracking product can be applied to changing needs?

One project that illustrates this point is our new line of catalyst called MACH – Molecular Access Catalysts for Hydrocracking. Our researchers developed the catalyst to increase the hydrocracker’s diesel output. But we soon discovered additional benefits, such as a much higher resistance to changes in feed severity than conventional hydrocracking catalysts.

We are now studying how that applies to non-traditional applications like producing base oil feedstocks. We’re seeing how this catalyst can be valuable to other product lines, especially as many refiners are producing less traditional fuels and are looking to make specific molecule cuts.

The MACH catalyst can potentially be applied to biofuel processing and plastic circularity, which involve selectively cracking only certain, larger molecules. The MACH catalyst is designed with pore distribution to crack only undesired molecules. It’s these kinds of applications – which expand beyond conventional products – that I’m really excited about. There are many studies underway, and it’s my job to think about what our current and long-term focus is for these technologies.

Q: How did you first get interested in chemical engineering?

I was drawn to chemical engineering because of the field’s focus on processes. I always had an interest in materials, process and continuous improvement. For example, I started out in plastics R&D and product development, which has now become part of the circular economy and energy transition.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked on catalysts and product development to make better, stronger plastics for containers and liners. Over time, I saw the expansion of polymers production. In the last decade, ethylene cracker startups and build announcements have grown exponentially.

Chemical engineering makes it possible for me to be a part of the solution. I am concerned: we need to have some responsible and sustainable avenues to handle the resultant growth in plastic waste. When I think about plastic circularity, it’s about coming up with solutions on what we have to do with these plastics. To me, the future of plastic circularity comes right back to hydrocracking.

Q: What is the role of hydrocracker products in plastic circularity?

We have several other technologists actively working on plastic circularity development. Although I am not directly working on it now, there is a connection to hydrocracking and catalysis:

Making cleaner, more efficient chemical feedstocks

The conventional hydrocracking route in refining has been to take crude oil, distill it into cuts and then crack it into distillation ranges that fit fuels requirements.

Now, we’re increasing our focus on chemical feedstocks. We take those oil products and set them up so that they become chemical feedstocks, which go to a steam cracker or an aromatics unit where they eventually become polymers and textiles. There is a difference in the reactions that make good diesel range fuels products versus ones that make good ethylene cracker petrochemical feeds. Some of the chemistries are competing or going in opposite directions.

We’re actively working on improving chemical feedstocks and making them better, cleaner, more efficient. We’ve selected certain candidates for further study that are in the potential product pool for plastic circularity.

Reprocessing waste plastics

The next realm is where waste plastic, other waste streams or even biofuels are broken down and reprocessed. We’re going to rely on some of the same reactions and base materials to make catalysts for this space. The challenge is that the feed will be significantly different and there will be a different target product range output. There is so much more work to be done in this new area.

The hydrocracker can be further involved in chemicals circularity since the ethylene steam cracker has some residual components that can then be sent directly back to the hydrocracker. The hydrocracker will also be necessary to turn reprocessed material into the right range of finished products.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the near- and long-term future?

I’m extremely interested to see how customers in various regions will start adapting their hydrocrackers differently. When we look at plastic circularity or biofuels, the early adopters seem to be Western Europe and the U.S., where the standards or requirements are more stringent. But the feedstocks and issues like plastic waste or non-claimed municipal waste are a global problem that require global collaboration to power progress together, whether that’s through industry, society or governments.

The hydrocracker is very important in a refinery, and it’s a unit that has a lot of flexibility. I’m looking forward to what our customers come up with and what they will challenge us to do with those units.

I’m also excited, as we discussed, about how plastic circularity will soon intersect with the hydrocracking developments I work on today. I have a huge passion for connecting the dots in my career and applying hydrocracking product development to solve challenges with plastics recycling and circularity.

One of my three sons has expressed interest in following in my footsteps in chemical engineering. I hope he will continue to help solve the plastic challenges that we are beginning to tackle today.

1 “Plastic’s Contribution to the Circular Economy”, PlasticsEurope, accessed 14 Sept. 2021, https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/focus-areas/circular-economy.