Interview with Dr. Teodor Trotus, Segment Lead Hydroprocessing, hte

Tell us how you got involved in the industry and about your current role at hte.

During my training as a chemist I grew fascinated by catalysts and catalysis. In my interpretation, catalysts are the beating heart of a great majority of downstream processes in the oil and gas industry, and this is what made me pursue a career in this field.

Beyond the privilege of working in a domain where I feel passionate about the physico-chemical processes applied, the oil and gas sector plays a key role in meeting the world’s energy needs as well as the world’s needs for petrochemical raw materials. hte offers solutions to accelerate research programs for our customers in oil and gas as well as other industries. In the hydroprocessing segment, we test catalysts using industrial feedstocks and provide our customers with reports on their performance in order to support catalyst development and process optimisation.  With our highly parallelised test units we can speed up experimental research work from a timescale of years to a timescale of months.

According to you, what is the biggest challenge the industry is facing today?

Looking at the current challenges of increasing efficiency in every area, I would say minimising CO2 emissions while at the same time increasing flexibility, both in the types of raw materials that can be processed and in the types of products that can be produced. All these aspects require significant investments at a time when the industry is recovering from a global pandemic that has brought the demand for transportation fuels to historic lows.

The simplest part of increasing efficiency would be to decrease the running costs of current operations. But this will only buy time until the expected drop in demand for fossil fuels catches up or until environmental regulations become so stringent that they make operations unprofitable.

Increasing efficiency in itself will lead to some minimisation of CO2 emissions but in the long run, with an aim set for net zero CO2, renewable energy will be needed to power reactors converting renewable feedstocks to more and more petrochemicals.

Increases in efficiency can also be brought about by deploying digitalisation in a way that facilitates the participation of all the people involved in a value chain to minimise time spent on manual or repetitive tasks.

So in view of all of this, I would say that the biggest challenge is quickly deploying critical investments after a period of significantly reduced cash flow.

Whatever the future may bring, with renewable energy, plastics recycling, and electric vehicles expected to lower the demand for fossil fuels – I believe the oil and gas sector still has a lot to offer. This both in terms of its direct products but also in terms of the technologies used to make them, many of which will continue – with incremental improvements – to supply the world’s needs for fuels and chemicals for many years to come.

Petrochemicals will account for more than a third of the growth in global oil demand to 2030 and nearly half through 2050, predicts the IEA. What does this mean for refiners? How can they meet growing demand for petrochemicals in the post-Covid world, while also achieving more stringent sustainability objectives?

Reaching more stringent sustainability objectives can be achieved by using feedstocks of a renewable origin as well as by employing CCUS technologies. In general, refineries already produce petrochemicals as side products. As demand patterns change, it is lucrative for a refinery to be able to increase its petrochemical output and decrease its fuel production. The petrochemicals market is expected to grow at a faster rate than the fuels market, but for an individual refinery – depending also on its geographical location – it is probable that the flexibility to switch between favoring the production of one chemical or fuel over another will offer a monetary advantage.

Thus, a high flexibility in terms of both feedstocks to accommodate more types of renewables, and products to better accommodate the market’s demands will help meet both the product demand target and the sustainability target. With ever-changing raw materials from crude or renewable resources, carbon and hydrogen management or more general element management (S, O, N) will require the integration of all refinery and petrochemical processes. The use of rejected carbon (CO2, coke) will need to be addressed and an alternative processing pathway via “clean” synthesis gas to olefins and aromatics might become necessary. This would probably need to be coupled with implementing CCUS technologies and replacing burner heaters with electric heaters supplied with renewable energy if net zero CO2 is the goal.

In the current context, where forecasts indicate that demand for fuels will be displaced by demand for petrochemicals with an energy transition ongoing and more and more stringent sustainability targets being imposed, how can hte help refineries meet the challenges ahead?

Refineries operate some of the biggest catalytic reactors in the world, where hydrogen is added to – or carbon is rejected from – petroleum-derived feedstocks with the end goal of producing fuels.  This paradigm has been true for many decades, with relatively minor changes in feedstock composition  or in the product slate. The changes in refinery products and feedstocks in the past are minor compared to what changes are foreseeable in the coming decades. Investments need to be made to revamp existing plants and also to build new plants to meet market demands and sustainability targets. At the heart of the conversion processes are catalysts that need to operate predictably and stably for years. Moreover, product yield differences of less than one percent in one catalytic process can mean a variation in income amounting to tens of millions of dollars per year.

hte can help refineries put catalysts to the test, thus making the choice of what to load into which reactor one that is based on experimental evidence. Our experimental services reveal what the product spectrum of a catalytic process will be, with a real feedstock. Besides this, we have accelerated aging protocols that can provide a relative ranking of catalyst stabilities. With our testing capabilities, we can help refineries choose the best catalyst from the market. Additionally, we can provide data for model or process validation in a refinery. Moreover, with our high-throughput testing capabilities, we can provide knowledge about many catalysts and reaction conditions in a very short time.

In this period where a shift from old paradigms is foreseeable for refineries in order to meet current challenges, having real experimental data from an independent third party to justify how to best load the world’s biggest reactors for the coming years can be a great advantage.

Hydrogen seems destined to play a part in tomorrow’s energy plan. How can operators best prepare?

For downstream operators, hydrogen has always played a crucial role in oil and gas processing. The amount of hydrogen required to process renewable feedstocks on a weight-by-weight basis compared to fossil feedstocks is generally higher, and increasing petrochemicals production from crude oil also requires more hydrogen than simply producing fuels. In my view, operators can best prepare for this by using any form of government-financed subsidies available to increase the production capacity for hydrogen via routes that avoid CO2 emissions, such as blue or green hydrogen.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities that downstream players will face when trying to implement CCUS technologies in their operations?

The promise of CCUS is to slow down or even reverse the effects that sustained CO2 emissions have had on the climate over the last centuries. On top of that, the promise of additional revenue that can be gained by trading carbon credits is a good motivation to implement CCUS technologies. The great challenge with this, especially for downstream players, is that while CO2 capture from one large flue gas stream only has moderate costs, these costs can quickly skyrocket if one considers capturing all the CO2 from many smaller flue gas streams with different compositions. As net zero CO2 emissions are the stated goal of more and more countries and companies in the next 30 to 50 years, refineries will need to find the optimal solution for their geographical location for carbon capture plus integration of renewables to reach net zero CO2.

Also, when considering the amounts of CO2 that need to be stored at current production rates, one must also consider the challenge for each refinery to find a suitable nearby reservoir for CO2 storage as well as transporting the CO2.

Please share with us some of the ways for refiners to capitalise on the benefits of ultra-high activity catalysts.

Higher catalyst activity translates to lower reactor temperatures, this in turn decreases the energy costs and, depending on the type of heating used, probably also the CO2 emissions generated to heat the reactor. When building a new reactor, especially with a highly active catalyst in mind, one also has the option to save plant space, because a smaller reactor is needed with a highly active catalyst.

Also, because their start-of-run temperatures are lower, it is feasible to imagine that highly active catalysts have a longer lifetime before the maximum temperature of the reactor is reached, but deactivation rates are not necessarily the same for all catalysts. Plus, with accelerated catalyst deactivation protocols, one can compare relative deactivation rates of multiple catalysts to obtain an experimental basis for any estimation of catalyst lifetime.

It must be noted that activity and selectivity are often but not always at odds with one another – very reactive catalysts can also show excessive conversion of the desired products in subsequent reactions. In short, higher activity can be a great benefit if the selectivity is still acceptable in relation to the desired products.

High-activity catalysts can also pose challenges, for example in exothermic reactions. If the distribution trays of the reactor work poorly and channels of a higher flow rate are formed in the catalyst bed, a highly active catalyst might still be capable of reaching very high conversions at this elevated flow rate, and with increased heat generation this could lead to a runaway reaction.

Laboratory testing of catalysts can help to evaluate both the selectivity versus conversion dependence of catalysts under normal conditions as well as under conditions of higher flow rates. Besides product properties, reactor temperature profiles can and should also be measured in a laboratory to gain knowledge about a new catalyst and compare it to a known catalyst before loading it into an industrial reactor.

What will the fuels of the future be and what will it take for them to displace the fuels of today?

Battery-powered electric vehicles look like a probable winner in the coming years on the passenger car market (at least in Northern & Western Europe and California). In aviation it will be very tough to beat the energy density of kerosene, and bio-kerosene offers a very compelling sustainable alternative to that.

For other sectors like maritime shipping, trucking, heating, electricity generation, and others, I think that there are still many open possibilities, and in the end it might be that some of these sectors end up with more than one fuel of the future based on geographical location.

The role of hydrogen as a carbon-neutral fuel will probably increase, but the questions of hydrogen storage and transportation still have no generally accepted solution.

Overall, the fuels of the future will need to match the fuels of today in terms of costs, availability, and reliability before they can become dominant. Regulations can push one geographical region one way or the other, but regulations alone will only create a vacuum which will be filled by another geographical region if the technical requirements of costs, availability, and reliability presented by fossil fuels are not met by alternative fuels.

What would be the main priority for operators to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic era?

Downstream operators should look at ways to proactively embrace the ongoing changes in the fuels and petrochemicals market, as well as the required sustainability targets. With their expertise and equipment, they are already in a key position to lead the way towards carbon-neutral fuels and carbon-neutral operations. This will need major investments and also a great deal of experimental work to validate any novelty to a process before applying it on a production scale.

Lastly, tell us a little bit about your presentation at ARTC 2021 and what we can expect.

My presentation will show hte’s R&D solution capabilities for supporting refineries in choosing the best catalyst for their applications. Such a choice is best made based on experimental evidence provided by an independent third party who can compare all the considered options from the market in one laboratory under identical conditions. The high degree of parallelisation of our test units facilitates testing many catalysts at the same time under the same conditions, giving clear advantages over comparisons between different laboratories or between different test units.

I will show how, even with highly parallelised test units, reactor in-series configurations as are used in first-stage hydrocracking can be tested with no compromise on data quality, and this is backed up by refineries all over the world that have used our services.

At hte – the high throughput experimentation company, we make R&D in the area of catalysis faster and more productive. We enable cost-effective innovations and reduced time to market for new products, thereby allowing our customers in the energy & refining, chemical & petrochemical, and environmental industry to keep ahead of the competition. Our technology and services comprise:

  • R&D Solutions: highly efficient contract research programs at hte’s state-of-the-art laboratories in Heidelberg, Germany, and
  • Technology Solutions: integrated hardware and software solutions, enabling our customers to establish high throughput workflows in their own laboratories.

Our customers benefit from a broad technical and scientific expertise, an exceptional customer orientation, complete end-to-end solutions, and an outstanding data quality. Our close ties with BASF guarantee long-term orientation and stability.