By Max Ovchinnikov on Mar 8, 2020
I’m a senior scientist with Shell Catalysts & Technologies in Houston, Texas. I’ve been a research scientist at Shell for over 14 years. Throughout my career, I’ve observed how research teams have evolved from a traditional discovery process to one that embraces agile, parallel, and experimental innovations.
In this new research environment, ideation, screening, and analysis all take place simultaneously, resulting in a more efficient workflow where no process is beholden to another. It has dramatically accelerated the discovery and deployment of new catalyst technologies.
In the coming decades, I see the shifting demand for fossil-based transportation fuels as the defining factor that will transform existing oil refining capacity towards becoming “refineries of the future.” These future refineries will be equipped with flexible technology solutions that can enable them to make a wide variety of chemicals and intermediates.
At Shell Catalysts & Technologies, these future refineries can be built upon the innovation of agile, experienced researchers, working in parallel with colleagues across our entire organization to meet the challenges of an evolving global marketplace.
Shifting Towards a Crude-to-Chemicals Mode
Every region in the world will experience significant energy transformation trends in the next 25 years. Regardless of regional differences, I see that growth in renewable, carbon-neutral energy solutions as dominating the energy transformation landscape.
Currently, most refineries are focused on the production of gasoline and distillate transportation fuels. However, energy analysts predict that mandated fuel economy standards, as well as growth in alternative drivetrains and shared mobility services will impact the overall global demand for transportation fuels over the coming decades. As a result, more refineries are considering diversifying their offerings to a variety of petrochemicals.
Shell Catalysts & Technologies integrates refinery catalysts with petrochemical technology to process crude oil into chemicals. Shell Catalysts & Technologies’ affiliates in the Shell group that are owner-operator at a number of refineries have allowed the research team unique insights into holistic product maximisation in crude-to-chemicals operations. According to my colleague, Hydrocracking Market Manager Sal Torrisi:
Shell Catalysts & Technologies’ strengths reside in supporting both refining and petrochemical operations, including at many Shell affiliate sites that operate integrated complexes. This access has permitted collaboration around leveraging new catalyst and process technology developments.
Over the years, it has also provided site flexibility in producing fuels, lubricants, and chemical products as market demands shift. As the future picture emerges around the concept of converting more crude oil molecules into petrochemical feedstocks, our ability to help our customers visualize the possibilities by discussing application of catalyst and process optimizations can lead to some valuable co-created solutions.
For example, we’ve worked with one site whose hydrocracker is geared towards maximising valued ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) product. At same time, we’ve developed a multi-catalyst solution that can improve the composition of the unconverted oil that goes to an integrated steam cracker geared at maximisation of olefins production. This provides the refinery-petrochemical complex several knobs to turn in their ability to redirect molecules and shift product yields in response to changing market dynamics.
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The Power of Parallel Workflows
Everyone in the Shell Catalysts & Technologies group of companies talks freely to each other: research scientists, process engineers, catalyst and manufacturing experts, sales and marketing teams, and our customer technical service people all get involved in new product discussions.
Having original ideas is important, but so is choosing the right catalyst technology solution that can be deployed to our customers in a safe, credible, affordable, scalable, and sustainable manner. This is where the research team can arguably have the most impact.
Applied together, computational modelling, advanced catalyst characterization techniques, high throughput experimentation, and predictive data analytics form a powerful combination for developing advanced catalyst technologies.
The Research and Development department has taken advantage of these technological advances to work across our global team and conduct activities more in parallel rather than in series, which has led to many discoveries towards the latest generation of high-performance catalyst solutions at a record-breaking pace.
For me, the most valuable aspect of my work has been in discovering, developing, and implementing new catalyst technology solutions for refining applications. My work supports downstream manufacturing, which trades and refines crude oil and other feedstocks into a wide range of products that are distributed around the world. I’ve also been able to cross-pollinate my research expertise to provide ongoing support for business areas like technical service, manufacturing, and customer troubleshooting.
Shell Catalysts & Technologies continuously drives improvements in catalyst technology solutions for refining and chemical applications by using a customized, customer-oriented approach. I’ve had a role in assessing operating-unit capabilities and constraints, feedstock flexibility, and specific technical and commercial objectives. I value developing fundamental knowledge in heterogeneous catalysis and working on longer-term catalyst solutions to support Shell’s strategy of becoming a carbon-neutral energy provider to the world.
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