Ethylene Oxide Production unit at Shell Eastern Petrochemicals Complex in Singapore.

The Challenges of Leadership: Maintaining Innovation in Ethylene Oxide Production

Shell Catalysts & Technologies is a leading brand for EO catalysts. Discover how innovative researchers created five new classes of products.

By Peter Stewart on Jun 29, 2020

I’m a global business manager and business director of EO catalysts at Shell Catalysts & Technologies, based in London. I love to see the power that technology has to solve problems and generate improvements.

For decades, Shell’s high-performance ethylene oxide (EO) catalyst has enabled plants all over the world to run longer, harder, and more efficiently, which has helped operators to increase profits and lower costs for consumers.

Going forward, EO catalysts will continue to allow customers to push units harder and generate greater returns from their assets. In the short-term, however, many units may need to run at lower rates, and choosing the right catalyst to get the run-length and flexibility to cope with rapid external changes is not easy.

Sustainable Solutions that Create Maximum Value

I’m energised by working with customers and digging deeper into their issues to understand the challenges they are faced with. By establishing the correct parameters, we are able to find the right solution. I think of it as the creation of value through the application of technology.

In 2015, I learned the importance of working with customers to understand their challenges and to co-create an optimal solution. Through early discussions with our customer, a large integrated regional petrochemicals company, the Shell Catalysts & Technologies team learned how they were challenged by high operating costs and production losses. The customer had revamped their plant with a licensor to increase capacity and run a more selective catalyst, but the catalyst installed was not able to deliver.

Shell Catalysts & Technologies was able to step in with an EO catalyst that enabled the customer to achieve their required run length, which allowed the delivery of the value premised in the revamp investment.

As a result, the longer runs, higher selectivity, and better stability have allowed the customer to generate much improved returns during the last few years. They have been able to save on ethylene consumption and to maximise production.

Being involved in this project was rewarding because of how we offered the customer both dependability and quality. We are always looking for sustainable solutions that create maximum value.

Download the Interview to Learn What Catalyst Technology Improvements Means for EO Producers

Shell’s Industry-Leading History in EO Catalysts

Today, Shell Catalysts & Technologies is the world’s leading brand for EO catalysts, and more than 50% of EO that is made uses Shell’s licensed technology. Shell has a rich history in the invention and innovation of EO catalysts. For more than 80 years, our committed, world-class research and development team has been excited to push back the frontiers and challenge paradigms to create what is now five new classes of products.

We have been able to maintain a technology leadership position through continued investment in research and development, enabled by the previous successes of our market-leading products. As Scott Baker, Global IP Manager summarised in his article Creating Value for EO/EG Plant Owners and Operators through Catalyst & Process Optimisation:

1970s

Shell introduced High Activity (HA) catalysts, pioneering the modern EO era.

1980s

Shell invented the High Selectivity (HS) catalyst family, which is used now as a foundation for modern EO catalysts.

2000s

Shell developed Hybrid (HY) catalysts.

2010s

Shell deployed the industry-leading High Performance (HP) families in 2010, and in 2017, introduced the fifth and newest EO catalyst family, High Tolerance (HT) catalysts.

HT catalysts offer customers a new EO catalyst alternative that is already showing incredible performance for a new product line.

This catalyst family is designed to be robust to water vapour, but in a context of ever-increasing work rates and productivity, this robustness also helps the catalysts maintain performance through various types of uncertainty and challenges. The potential for further improvement is very exciting.

Despite having cutting-edge technology, it has been a leadership challenge for Shell researchers to maintain focus and urgency to continually innovate. From the business development side, it has been a priority for us to set targets that really stretch the organisation, not only in terms of today, but where we will need to be in terms of performance in 10 years’ time.

That long-term focus on driving real performance improvements in both research and business development has enabled us to maintain our leadership position. Going forward, it will continue to motivate us to drive the pace of innovation.

Learn More About Ethylene Oxide/Ethylene Glycol (EO/EG) Process Technology

Continued Progress with Advanced Catalysts and Technologies

Continued market growth for EO catalysts comes from the demand for EO into many applications, including medical sterilisation and other cleaning and sanitising products. The primary product requiring EO for production is polyester, and this demand is expected to continue to grow, as it is a versatile and cost-effective polymer with many applications.

In the coming years, I expect strong growth to continue in EO demand, due to the lack of alternatives to polyester fibre and the demands of a growing world population.

The region that will see the most change is Asia, and especially China, with many new plants being built. Many other plants in the region are adapting their units and taking full advantage of the advanced EO catalysts from Shell.

However, I believe that our industry is going to see an increasing focus from consumers and governments on energy use and CO2 footprint, as well as how we manage the impacts of our products on the environment.

Solving these challenges will be an ongoing process for many years, but it will start with deep discussions around the goals and ambitions of players right across the energy and petrochemicals complex.

By engaging with our knowledgeable engineers and using the full range of technologies that Shell Catalysts & Technologies companies possess, from carbon capture to energy efficiency studies to advanced catalysts, customers will be able to make better use of scarce resources and reduce the environmental impact of their operations as well as to survive the increasing competition that we see today.

Download the White Paper to See How EO/EG Production Upgrades with High-Performance Catalysts Increases Work Rates By 14%