Avantium: The future is fossil-free

Asian Downstream Insights speaks to Tiago Vilela, Director (Refinery Catalyst Testing) at Avantium, as he discusses how Avantium guides refineries in choosing the right catalyst for testing, and how the future is going to be fossil-free.

To start off, could you tell us how you got started in the industry?

I have been working in the oil and gas sector since I first started my career almost 20 years ago. After completing a Masters in Chemical Engineering and Post-Graduation in Process and Equipment Design, I started work for a consultancy firm providing management consultation to refineries, then joined Jacobs Consultancy (now known as Advisian/Worley) to provide advice in the sector.

Five years ago, I joined Avantium to lead the Refinery Catalyst Testing (RCT) global services, and am accountable for the overall performance of the business line. I also set the direction and objectives, and drive implementation in coordination with contributing functions and other directors.

Going forward, what’s your outlook on crude oil?

The price of crude oil should remain at the same level for 2021 and 2022. Obviously, there has been a significant impact towards oil consumption because of COVID-19, and this has accelerated companies’ strategies to move into renewable feedstocks – this trend will continue in the years to come. However, we will continue to use crude for fuel during this transition period and continue to shift into petrochemicals.

An alternative scenario could be that crude volatility will remain, and that overall crude demand will in fact start to decline. This will mean some resources are stranded (too difficult to extract) while electrification and renewable fuels start to take over.

What are any medium-term impacts you think COVID-19 might have on the industry?

COVID-19 has accelerated some companies’ strategies to move into renewable feedstocks. I believe this trend will only gain momentum in the coming years. JET A1 demand has been severely hit, and in fact there is a high chance that business travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels, with a consequence on JET demand.

What are your key business priorities for post-COVID recovery?

I intend to continue where we left off – we used this period to finalise key development projects to augment our catalyst testing services. Our priority is to continue promoting independent catalyst testing for all change outs and important feasibility studies. We want to increase our list of clients, and further establish Avantium as the leading independent catalyst testing provider to compare the effectiveness of commercial catalysts to improve the bottom line for our customers.

As a technology provider, how is Avantium helping refiners meet and overcome challenges in the market?

We offer best-in-class pilot technology to evaluate the best catalysts and/or technologies; we are also helping refineries measuring the impact of different feedstocks in catalyst performance and certainly help mitigate risks before making changes in key units of the refinery. This includes the (co)feeding of renewable feedstocks.

What type of catalysts does Avantium test?

For refineries, we test hydrotreating, ULSD or VGO, hydrocracking, reforming, isomerisation, dewaxing, and FCC pretreat for up to 16 different catalysts (including stacked-beds) using the refinery feedstock and process conditions. We also test various types of catalyst for petrochemical applications.

What type of pilot plants do you use to test refinery catalysts?

We fully exploit our patented technology 16-parallel reactors micro-pilot plants with unmatched reactor-to-reactor reproducibility for scalability of results. All major catalyst suppliers have validated our methods, approach and testing technology. This has been a great achievement, allowing us to compare the catalytic performance of the different catalysts with confidence.

Do you have comparisons between your test results and the performance in commercial units?

For evert test performed, we always compare new catalyst options with the incumbent catalyst. This allows us to compare the test results with the commercial performance. Moreover, as part of our continuous improvement process, we always follow up with the refinery on the performance of the catalyst after it is loaded. We know that our results are very consistent with the performance in commercial units.

Recently, we compared the data from a Reforming unit with our test results (“Refinery’s performance confirms catalyst testing”, PTQ Catalysis 2021). The test results obtained in the Avantium micro-pilot plant are fully consistent with the results of the commercial reforming unit for C5+ yield and hydrogen production.

As you described, choosing the right catalyst can have a major impact on the profitability of your refinery. What is important to guarantee that the test results are reliable?

High data quality – precision, accuracy and reproducibility – means that the test results are reproducible and thus reliable for refineries to select the best performing catalyst. In order to guarantee a high data quality in a parallel system, we need to obtain a good reactor-to-reactor repeatability where duplicate reactors (loaded with the same catalyst system) yield comparable results and a good run-to-run reproducibility where the same catalyst system tested in different runs yield comparable results.

As the catalyst packing in the reactors is straightforward (Single-String Reactor Loading), and does not require any special procedures, excellent repeatability in the reactor loading is obtained, contributing to the high quality of the test results.

It is also important to utilise a proven testing methodology validated by all major catalyst vendors. Ultimately, observing a catalyst’s performance in the commercial unit consistent with the test results obviously increases the level of confidence in the test results.

Increasing profitability is a key question addressed regularly by refiners, particularly in recent times. What can refiners do to increase profitability with resources that they already have?

Avantium’s main role lies in catalyst selection, and we want to add that the exploitation of regenerated catalysts is not as far along in the industry as it should be. The application of suitable regen materials is a significant cost-reduction over buying always-fresh catalysts. Some have mastered the use of regen, whereas many have the policy not to use it at all. Feedstock choice has been for many refiners an essential differentiator, including renewables. In this emerging trend, Avantium is well-positioned to support our clients in evaluating the right opportunities.

Looking into the future, what do you think the fuels of the future will be, and what will it take for them to displace the fuels of today?

At Avantium, we believe that the future is in fact fossil-free, and this is why we are constantly developing new technologies. The most advanced is the YXY® plant-to-plastics technology that catalytically converts plant-based sugars into a wide range of chemicals and plastics, such as PEF (polyethylene furanoate). Avantium has successfully demonstrated the YXY® Technology at our pilot plant in Geleen, in The Netherlands.

The second is the Ray Technology™ that catalytically converts industrial sugars to plant-based MEG (mono-ethylene glycol). Avantium is scaling up our Ray Technology™ and the demonstration plant in Delfzijl, the Netherlands, opened in 2019.

The third technology is DAWN, and converts non-food biomass into industrial sugars and lignin in order to transition the chemicals and materials industries to non-fossil resources. In 2018, Avantium opened the DAWN pilot biorefinery in Delfzijl, The Netherlands.

In addition to our current technologies using plant-based carbon sources, we aspire to develop materials using CO2 as a feedstock and electro-catalysis as the conversion technology. Furthermore, Avantium is looking at new plant-based building block opportunities by evaluating polymer products for the plastic materials of the future.

Of course, we realise that the transition period will require fossil materials to ensure and further develop society. Catalysis and catalysts will have to play an even more important role here.

Finally, what advice can you give to business leaders in the refining and petrochemical industry to navigate the current climate?

It is clear that the refining and petrochemical industry needs to adjust and adapt; the main challenge for business leaders is choosing the best technology, not only to efficiently integrate refining with petrochemicals, but more importantly in processing renewable feedstocks while keeping the existing business profitable. In addition, newer and bigger challenges are clearly visible in the post-pandemic industry, and proactively adapting and embracing these challenges will determine who will succeed in a world where climate change is managed somehow, and the energy transition is facilitated.