In conversation with: Matthew Viergutz, Sulzer GTC Technologies

Matthew Viergutz, Head of Sulzer GTC Technologies, speaks to Asian Downstream Insights to discuss changing trends in the oil and gas, and how Sulzer positions itself at the forefront of these coming changes.

To start off, please tell us a little more about Sulzer and what you do.

I am proud to support Sulzer Chemtech’s strategy of delivering leading technology solutions in both conventional and emerging markets. As Head of Sulzer GTC’s global licensing business, I’m focused on leading a great team of innovators to solve increasingly complex challenges for our customers. As regulations and corporate governance expectations change, we expect to play an increasing role in helping industrial partners produce clean fuels and chemicals in new, low carbon ways.

What does a typical day in your role look like? What are the biggest challenges of your role?

Each day is a mix of serving immediate client needs while looking at new ways to be better positioned to help our customers in the future. Technology development is key for us, we are constantly evaluating how we have done things in the past as we look to accelerate innovation. Our group is aligned around a common mission but like everyone we are facing rapid change – one of my biggest challenges is working every day to position our team to be able to change at the speed our customers need us to change.

What are some key concerns for refiners when it comes to the current state of the refining and petrochemical industry?

Due to electrification trends in mobility and global focus in producing low carbon fuels, the refining industry is under tremendous pressure for transformation. Expectation for refineries’ job is more than just producing fuel and petrochemical products, but to do it with lower emissions, safer, more efficiently, and with built-in flexibility to quickly adapt the market change.

The two major challenges now are a) to shift from fuels to petrochemicals platform to maintain healthy margins and b) include more sustainable feedstocks like plastics pyrolysis oils, vegetable oils, used cooking oils, bio-oils etc in their crude slate. It is a big challenge for the refineries, but is also a great opportunity to step up and grow resilient against the ever-changing market requirement.

I understand that Sulzer covers quite an expansive range of services and solutions offered for the refining and petrochemicals industry. Could you tell us a little more about this?

Sulzer’s Global Technology Business offers a wide range of licensed process technologies and proprietary equipment for the refining and petrochemical industry.

Among those, a variety of cutting-edge extraction technologies have been applied to refineries and steam crackers by Sulzer Chemtech to help our clients upgrade low-value streams to high-value petrochemical products, that include BTX extraction from reformate, pygas, and even FCC gasoline, styrene extraction from pygas, and EB extraction from para-xylene loop. Those not only increase our client’s profitability, but also give them flexibility to convert fuel to petrochemicals and minimise their carbon footprint.

With the rapid energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels happening at rapid pace, Sulzer Chemtech also offers hydrotreating technology to upgrade vegetable oils, fats and greases to renewable diesel and/or Sustainable Aviation Fuel. Sulzer Chemtech licenses the proprietary BioFlux process technology in cooperation with Duke Technologies. The BioFlux process converts various pretreated feedstocks to either HVO or SAF with maximum flexibility in the specific ratios of end products. On the plastic recycling side, there is an increasing appetite among Asian naphtha cracker operators to include pyrolysis oils, obtained from mixed plastics pyrolysis, as feedstock to the cracker. This enables plastics circularity and helps to address the waste plastics problem being faced worldwide.

Sulzer Chemtech offers solutions, both from process and equipment supply standpoint, to purify and upgrade pyrolysis oils to make them suitable as a cracker feedstock. Similarly, styrene and polystyrene producers worldwide have a growing interest in using recycled styrene as a feedstock to produce recycled polystyrene. To this effect, Sulzer Chemtech offers a unique styrene purification technology, SuRe Styrene, to recover ASTM or higher purity grade styrene monomer from crude styrene oil obtained from PS pyrolysis.

Are there any case studies you might be able to share with us?

One the recent major projects in the renewables sector is the collaboration with Energy Absolute (EA) to expand its manufacturing plant in Map Ta Phut, Rayong, Thailand. Sulzer Chemtech has signed a license and engineering agreement with EA, one of the biggest companies in Thailand for renewable energy supply to utilize the proprietary BioFlux process technology that converts pretreated feedstocks to either renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel. This will enhance the quality of the renewable diesel, or hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) to meet the regulations on diesel use in cold, wintery conditions in North America and Europe and also additionally produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Sulzer Chemtech, which supported EA in the construction of its original plant, was selected for its leading expertise in sustainable manufacturing technologies as well as the ability to provide the BioFlux licensed process technology solution.

As an example of enabling plastics circularity, Sulzer Chemtech provided its SuRe BTX technology to recover high purity circular aromatics from cracked oil products derived from Encina’s mixed-plastics-to-aromatics catalytic conversion platform. Encina’s 1000 tons per day waste plastics recycling facility will be located in Northeast United States and is expected to be operational in 2024. Encina has developed a catalytic platform wherein the cracked products selectively contain high levels of circular aromatics as well as other valuable by-products. Sulzer Chemtech will provide its hydrotreating and aromatics extraction technology (SuRe BTX) to recover high purity circular benzene and toluene.

What are some changes in trends that you have observed, in the petrochemicals industry?

The trends are similar to that seen in refining industry, decarbonisation. We are seeing cracker licensors talking about electric furnaces and carbon capture for net reduction in carbon emissions. There are talks about co-processing of treated pyoil from recycled plastics along with fresh feed in the cracker. There is also a trend to maximise Pygas valorisation with recovery of valuable products such as Styrene, Isoprene and DCPD which was not considered earlier by existing and prospective cracker operators.

In your opinion, what is/are the main driver(s) influencing this shift in the oil and gas industry, and where do you think the industry will be in the near future?

As the world economies are undergoing an energy transition, liquid fuels will continue to power the future whether it is transportation or industry, but the focus will turn to reducing the GHG (carbon) emissions of fuels to develop a net carbon neutral strategy for the future. One such major transition that is ongoing is the shift from fossil diesel and jet to renewable diesel and jet driven by economic policy and incentives that are in place in North America and Europe.

These policies and incentives are important landmarks that may form the basis for future policies in Asia that will drive the transition in Asia as well. Further, refiners and petrochemical operators are increasingly looking to diversify their feed input to include sustainable feeds like plastics pyrolysis oils oils, bio- oils etc. This helps them to meet their ESG commitments and shareholders’ expectations.

We know that sustainability is increasingly becoming a corporate CSR and ESG concern – how can organisations adapt to stakeholders’ sustainability demands?

This is a great question because in Sulzer GTC we experience this change both as employees of an ESG-conscious company and as technology providers who can help our customers make meaningful changes that support their own shareholder objectives. Our primary commitment as a licensor is to offer a range of technology solutions that are focused on reducing the carbon footprint of every customer, on every project. In some cases, we can leverage work that we have already done, but in others this shift demands bolder innovation, something that is at the core of our mission in Sulzer Chemtech. I am so excited to continue to help our clients on this journey – there has never been a better time to license process technology and it is only going to become more enjoyable as newer and more creative solutions are developed.

What are some challenges in the way of achieving increased sustainability, and how can organisations look to overcome them?

In my experience the key to increased sustainability is simply a strong, unfailing commitment from leadership to become more sustainable across its organisation’s entire value chain. This means having difficult conversations and making difficult choices. It also demands an open-mindedness and creativity that have sometimes been stifled, especially in large mature organisations. The challenges we face to become more circular and to make material reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are monumental. They require new collaborations, new approaches, and yes new technologies. We all have a role to play but it is especially important for leaders to provide the right direction and priorities to their teams. 

Sustainability and the energy transition are also overarching themes at this year’s Asian Downstream Summit. What can we look forward to from Sulzer at the conference and event?

Sulzer Chemtech is committed to providing process technology solutions and related services to service the various companies undertaking these energy transition projects. At the ARTC/ADS conference this year Sulzer Chemtech will showcase our unique technology portfolio that can help the operators to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels.