Shell employee looking to optimise operations in Naphtha Hydrotreater

Optimising Refinery Operations with Collaboration and Digitisation

Senior Account Executive Perry Lea discusses helping customers extract the most value from their assets and how digitisation can change process engineering.

By Perry Lea on May 3, 2020

In 2019, Shell Catalysts & Technologies was launched to solve the industry’s most complex challenges. From the beginning, I saw how we combined three outstanding organisations — CRI, Criterion, and Shell Global Solutions — to expand our services and licensing know-how to provide more customer value. We were able to take deeper dives into their challenges and explore new operational possibilities.

Today, I’m a senior account executive at Shell Catalysts & Technologies, based in Texas. When I’d first joined Shell Catalysts & Technologies (known at the time as Criterion) in 2013, my focus was to deliver customer value with high-performance catalysts and solutions.

This was the most challenging work I ever had the pleasure of learning. Thankfully, I was surrounded by some of the smartest and most dedicated solutions providers in the industry.

My colleagues taught me how we differentiate ourselves. Our value is not only in our first-class products. It is in our technical expertise as an owner-operator. This expertise allows us to take a consultative approach with our customers to help them optimise their refining processes to operate more profitably. When we find solutions, we celebrate with our customers as one team.

Taking a Team Approach for Technical Solutions

In 2018, I assembled an internal team of experts to help solve a hydrotreater cycle length challenge for one of our base oils customers. Our customer’s goal was to find a way of increasing the cycle life in their hydrotreater. Base oil units can be a very profitable revenue stream for a refinery. If we could help them increase the cycle life and reduce downtime, the customer would make more product, expand their market share, and grow their revenue.

We invited our colleagues and our hydrotreating lube specialist for a diagnostic meeting with our customer. Through internal discussions, we collaborated on a solution that exceeded our customer’s expectations.

We installed new Shell High-Dispersion Trays in their hydrotreater and were able to increase the usable amount of catalyst in the reactor. Moreover, our HD Trays increased the catalyst effective utilisation rate (which had hovered around 60%) to 100% with our new internals. In addition, we installed our latest high-activity hydrotreating catalyst. The combination of solutions essentially more than doubled the cycle life to approximately 72 months.

For the hydro-finishing reactor, we recommended our new and higher-activity noble metal catalyst, which was more resistant to contaminants. This new catalyst helped increase the cycle life to six years.

These solutions resulted in huge cycle life improvements for the hydrotreater and hydro-finishing reactors. They also coincided with the six-year cycle life the customer was currently experiencing with their dewaxing unit. Now, the customer has the ability to change out their catalyst for all three reactors at the same time, approximately every six years.

They will be able to manufacture more base oils than they thought possible. Not only do they have the ability to grow their market share and top-line revenue, but they will be saving millions of dollars in turnaround costs and catalyst purchases. 

This is the type of results customers can expect when they work with Shell Catalysts & Technologies. We offered our customer reactor internals to extend their cycle life while also providing them with the ability to operate more safely than before. We are now considered their trusted advisor, and they recently reached out to us to address a similar challenge they have with another unit.

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Improving Process Engineering with Digitisation

In the coming years, digitisation will continue to impact customers around the world. Shell Catalysts & Technologies is at the forefront of new reactor modelling. We take data from a refinery operating unit on a daily basis and allow our models to provide the customer or process engineer with a snapshot in real-time on how the unit is performing vis-à-vis the cycle life, weighted average bed temperature (WABT), conversion rate, product quality, etc.

Digitisation provides a remote monitoring system that will ensure the pre-emptive mitigation of operational and process constraints in the customer’s unit. It will also assist technical service engineers and process engineers to better understand catalyst performance capabilities in real time.

Digitisation can allow us to:

  • Leverage the power of kinetic process models deeply embedded in the monitoring solution as well as technology-specific data-driven fault models.
  • Develop operational best practices from remote monitoring systems that can provide prediction-based event detection.
  • Understand the economic impact of catalyst life trade-offs by gaining insight into how operational changes impact catalyst performance with “what-if” model-based predictions.
  • Deliver a professional and marketable tool that makes use of operating data in an easy-to-navigate display of the most crucial targets with real-time status.

These technologies also have the potential to change how process engineers currently operate. One of the biggest challenges in the refinery industry comes from the continuous movement of process engineers within a plant. More often than not, they are in their role for 18 to 24 months before moving onto another unit.

Refiners move their employees around in order to provide them with new learning opportunities. Through varied experiences, process engineers gain greater knowledge on how all the various functions in a refinery come together to deliver products to the marketplace.

However, the short tenures also make it a challenge for refiners to extract the most value out of a unit. New modelling tools can change this by providing the process engineer with quicker solutions and help them develop more efficient processes.

These technologies will highlight areas of concern as well as opportunities to extract more value. Through digitisation, process engineers will have the ability to focus on adding more value and profitability to the unit, versus just running the cycle and ensuring there are no disruptions.

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Solving More Than Catalyst Challenges

Going forward, my long-term goal is to help our customers solve more than catalyst challenges. As an owner-operator, Shell Catalysts & Technologies has the expertise in licensing and services to help our customers extract the most value from their assets and help them with the energy transition.

We have the unique ability to assist them in their troubleshooting needs. We get exposure from servicing hundreds of reactors in the world. We take that knowledge and use it to help our customers. On the energy transition side, we share with them where we are headed and how we can work towards a larger plan of being a better energy steward for the planet.

Get the White Paper to See How High Yields and Quality Base Oils Can Be Achieved Using Catalytic Technology