By Hans Wijnbelt, Global Business Manager NHT, Tail Gas Catalyst and SRU Catalyst on May 10, 2022
Hans Wijnbelt is Global Business Manager Naptha Hydrotreater (NHT), Tail Gas Catalyst and Sulphur Recovery Unit (SRU) Catalyst, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Hans has worked in the energy industry for over 30 years and has been at Shell since 1990. In his current role, Hans leans on his extensive experience to lead strategy and business development for catalysts that reduce sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
In this interview on “How I Make Every Molecule Matter”, Hans shares insight into how advancements behind tail gas catalysts help refiners reduce SO2 and CO2 emissions, his role in Shell’s early hydrogen development and the motivation behind getting his pilot’s license.
1. Could you discuss your current work on reducing sulphur dioxide emissions?
We are helping to advance learnings from our next-generation, low-temperature tail gas catalyst: 934. In 2020, we launched the 934 catalyst to minimise the output of SO2 emissions, which causes acid rain when emitted into the atmosphere.
The 934 tail gas catalyst is part of the Shell Claus Off-gas Treating (SCOT) process. Shell developed SCOT in the 1970s, and over the last 50 years, refineries and gas plants have adopted SCOT, or similar technologies, as a standard to manage their sulphur dioxide emissions. As a result, the 934 catalyst is helping refineries and gas plants meet emissions regulations and conserve energy use.
Reducing the sulphur dioxide emission output
This catalyst reduces the sulphur emission output by converting sulphur species to hydrogen sulfide (H2S) molecules, which is then captured and sent to another unit where it’s converted into elemental sulphur. The 934 catalyst has a higher conversion rate than the previous generation, so it can turn more sulphur species into H2S. This H2S is captured in the SCOT process and routed to another unit (Claus). Since more H2S is captured it means less sulphur species are emitted from the stack.
Increasing energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emission
The other benefit of the 934 catalyst is its high activity compared to the previous generation. Every catalyst operates at a certain temperature, and because of the high activity, we can reduce the temperature that is required to reach a high conversion, or a good performance of the catalyst. Operating at a lower temperature requires less fuel to generate heat, which results in less CO2 output.
There is the additional advantage of potentially extending the life of the catalyst when operating at a lower temperature because when catalysts are used at a higher temperature, they will deactivate faster compared to catalysts operating at a lower temperature. As a result, the cycle life of the catalyst can potentially be extended which results in less cost and waste.
2. What other energy transition projects have you found rewarding during your time at Shell?
During the first part of my career at Shell, I worked in catalyst development. It may have seemed trivial to be working towards developing a commercial catalyst product, but the work became rewarding when I realised the positive impact the new catalyst would have on reducing CO2 emissions as well as optimising specifications of the end product. It made me excited to be working towards creating a positive impact on environmental issues while also knowing that the new catalyst could bring benefits from a commercial perspective.
In the early 2000s, I worked on another project for Shell Hydrogen (H2) on automotive applications and auxiliary power units. At that time, H2 was not as popular as it is now, but there was excitement around H2 being a future energy carrier towards sustainable energy solutions. Alongside the technical solutions we delivered, there was a special aspect that helped us collaborate across multiple parties – including car manufacturers, technology companies and even competitors – which was building a shared vision.
3. Are there connections from that initial Shell H2 project to H2 developments you see today?
At the time, we were developing catalysts to contribute on increasing the efficiency of cars and electric vehicles (EVs). When you look at combustion engines, a lot of the energy produced is moving away into heat and not into movement. Our intention was to develop a process that could use less energy at a lower temperature and be more efficient in the way of movement.
We converted natural gas or gasoline into carbon monoxide (CO) and H2, and that H2 was used in fuel cells. These fuel cells could also be used as auxiliary power units as backup systems for hospitals or police stations.
It was quite a novelty at the time and we were successful in the development of the catalyst, but we were too early in respect to the fuel cells. Today we see cars running on fuel cells using the same process we used at that time. However, 20 years ago, there was a general problem in building long-lasting fuel cells. The fuel cells fell apart after about a thousand hours of running.
Today we see this same vision and synergy around hydrogen as there was 20 years ago. The industry has become more interested in hydrogen use and is working together to ensure that we can still provide energy to societies but produce less pollution.
4. What interests you most about the work you do today?
I try to share knowledge on a daily basis, as I’ve worked throughout various levels of the organisation for about 30 years. I like to work with teams and mentor colleagues to help them through challenges. It’s in my character: for instance, I’ve coached indoor soccer for about 25 years.
My current role is unique in that it brings together a lot of learnings from previous positions. The challenges I work through include keeping both a near-term and long-term focus on the technical and commercial aspects of catalysts. I develop business strategies in close cooperation with our sales organisation to ensure that our products are delivering the performance our customers are looking for today in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions. Shell Catalysts & Technologies is the market leader for tail gas catalysts, and I am also involved in strategic thinking to ensure our future positioning, which involves developing new products and working with R&D.
5. Outside of your career, what is something about yourself that most people would be surprised to learn?
I am planning to get my pilot’s license. We have small airfields close to Amsterdam, and a friend who became one of the youngest pilots at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines rented a plane years ago and took me flying. He switched off the engine and it seemed like we were floating in the sky.
I don’t think flying is scary – not even in commercial planes when I experienced flying over thunderstorms and saw lightning in the clouds below. There’s a feeling of freedom that you have when you move in the air. You can go anywhere. I see some similarities in developing new products and flying. Both can be considered journeys, and while we are not always sure what will cross our path, we always end up in a new place where we encounter opportunities and successes.
Discover 934: Superior low-temp performance