Interview with Francis Humblot, New Business & Services Developer for Oil & Gas Market, Arkema

Thank you for your time! To start off, could you share with us how you got involved in the industry and your current role at Arkema?

After my PhD with IFP Enegies Nouvelles, I spent around 20 years in R&D and technical positions for Arkema to develop sulphur chemicals-based solutions for the oil and gas industry, particularly for the refining and petrochemical sectors. I have moved for three years to a new business developer responsible for the same industries, identifying growth opportunities for Arkema and Thiochemicals, and supporting internally development projects from feasibility to commercial stages.

Please share with us a little bit more about Arkema and your experience in the oil & gas industry.

Arkema has established a formidable global presence in the oil and gas market and provides safe and flexible solutions as a one-stop platform for all stages of operations. From downstream-sector operations to delivery of the final product, our market-leading portfolio of high-performance additives and thermoplastics ensures that customers benefit from reduced costs, improved efficiency and more sustainable services overall. Thanks to extensive experience in the oil and gas industry, our team of technical experts is committed to providing top-level assistance to optimize processes for our customers, no matter how complex or challenging.

Personally, for the refining sector, I have supported the development of global solutions & services for the sulfiding of hydroprocessing catalysts, which has improved safety, reliability and efficiency of the sulfiding agent (dimethyldisulfide called DMDS). Recently, we have introduced for this application advanced digital solutions and analytical tools that allows further startup procedure optimization that generates significant customer savings.

For the petrochemical sector, I have been involved for developing the use of DMDS as anti-coking agent for steamcracking furnaces and propane dehydrogenation units (PDH) so that DMDS has becomes one of the mostly used Sulphur additive. For instance, we have developed worldwide logistics solutions to ensure a regular DMDS supply without any shortage of a constant quality product in a convenient and safe packaging.

What’s your outlook on crude oil, going forward?

Obviously, the world is moving to decarbonize the economy but replacement solutions need time for their implementations and even in 2050, zero CO2 emission targets will not be easy to meet.

On a more short-term perspective, we have observed a recovery of the O&G sector in 2021 after the COVID crisis and I believe that this trend will continue next year. However, oil consumption will not grow as the last 10 years. Renewable energy solutions will take a significant increasing part of the energy supply so that the global oil use will probably stabilize before declining after 2030.

What do you think the shape of post-pandemic recovery is going to look like across different regions, such as in Europe?

Lockdown measures and barriers for travelling have strongly hurt the refining industry in all regions, but the recovery dynamics are different, and are driven by the local demand and economy. A slower recovery is observed in Europe as compared to other regions, but the demand has been flat or even declining before 2019, which doesn’t help with maintaining an acceptable production rate and sustainable margins. In fact, we have seen some closures announced over the last 12 months.

In North America, the fuel demand has come back to a level reminiscent of pre-COVID periods by mid-2021, supported by the traditional high demand in summer. However, we have observed a significant number of refineries announcing a full or partial conversion to renewable fuels. These projects are going to reduce conventional fuel production over the next five years.

The Middle East and Asia have the benefit of access to cheap crude oil and a strong regional economy, and refining capacity will continue to grow even if fuel consumption may be reduced in the coming months due to a new wave of COVID-19 variants and lockdowns.

However, there is no denying the aviation sector has been badly impacted, and no global recovery is expected before 2023. Jet fuel demand is still very weak, and the refining margins, even improving, are still far from pre-COVID days.

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

The attractiveness of petrochemicals has really increased over the last decade, and we have already observed the startup of new refineries where petrochemicals take a large part of product output. Other projects like crude-to-chemicals will come on stream. For an existing refinery, some operating modes can produce more olefins or aromatics from the FCC or reformer, but very often, CAPEX are required for a significant change – which is not easy to get during a low refining margin period.

In this context, refineries could also have a role to play for the development of a circular economy related to the chemical recycling of plastic – such as the conversion of pyrolysis naphtha to produce propylene and aromatics. Governments will certainly support such changes for a more sustainable economy.

All these challenges require strategic decisions to be made, alongside collaborations with new industries and partners (waste collectors and sorting) and the implementation of new technologies. This is likely to be one of the major challenges for the future of the refining industry.

How can refiners effectively capture the benefits of the energy transition?

Refiners will have to meet local regulations to decarbonize the economy, and one short-term solution is to use vegetable oils and fats as a feedstock. North America and Europe are the most advanced regions with a clear roadmap until 2025 and 2030 (take, for instance, the “Green deal” in Europe). Technically, this feedstock can be co-processed in existing hydroprocessing units after minor modifications. However, to reach a much higher production capacity, more and more refineries choose to convert either an existing unit to 100% renewable diesel and jet, or even to modify an old asset to produce 100% renewable fuels.

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?

Improving profitability is a short-term target and day-to-day question. What can be done simply to cut costs and create more value? Process optimization is the core activity of a refinery that knows how to maximize its return with a given asset and crude oil. Sub-contractors and partners also play a role, and their selection is a key element of refinery productivity; they have to bring innovative solutions that are more effective.

For instance, many examples with IIoT and digital solutions have been developed recently to help refiners rapidly adapt their process to a parameter change, or immediately detect unexpected deviations that need to be tackled. In the meantime, Arkema has also launched a digital service for hydroprocessing catalyst sulfiding, which provides real-time data to reduce the startup period, and result in product savings and direct benefit.

Could you tell us a little more about your solutions for refiners and petrochemical players, and what benefits Arkema provides?

For gas distribution, Arkema provides gas and fuel transmission pipes, and a full range of gas odorants that allow early leak detection and ensure the safety of gas distribution up to the end-user.

In the petrochemical sector, Arkema has developed anti-coking additives for steamcracking furnaces that extend the run of the cracking furnace and their profitability. For refineries, Arkema offers molecular sieves for natural gas purification, impurity removal down to the ppm level, and hydroprocessing catalyst sulfiding and activation solutions that maximize hydroprocessing unit production rates and catalyst lifetimes.

Arkema is the only company to manufacture DMDS Evolution E2, the most efficient sulfiding agent. During the unit startup, the 68% sulfur contained in DMDS is converted into H2S at low temperatures, which reacts immediately with the hydroprocessing catalyst and reduces all detrimental side reactions that could reduce final catalyst activity.

Customers also benefit from our Carelflex service, offering top-quality equipment and expert teams that handle and inject DMDS in accordance with industry regulations and our customers’ standards.

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

In the next 10 years, we will see an increase in the production of biomass origin fuels, such as ethanol coming from sugar or corn fermentation, or renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) obtained by the hydrogenation of vegetable oil or fats. These technologies are proven and have met a real success now, but the resources will be limited. This is why some efforts are down to use cellulosic feedstock that is abundant and cheap, but it’s uncertain whether these routes will be technically and economically attractive for liquid fuels production.

A lot of attention has also been recently put on hydrogen as fuel for on-road transportation or for flight because of zero CO2 emission. It implies that the production mode will not generate any CO2 either, because the CO2 is captured and injected in old gas fields (grey hydrogen), or because it is produced with green electricity and electrolysis (green hydrogen). Time will be required to develop those plants and infrastructure for safe H2 commercialisation and use that will not become significant before 2030. For these energy transitions, local regulations play a major role in giving long-term visibility and support for the much-needed investment resources.

Finally, tell us about your session at ARTC this year. What can attendees look forward to?

ARTC has been a major event for the refining industry in Asia for years, and it’s a great pleasure to explain how Arkema and its sulphur chemicals division has recently reinforced its service portfolio. Besides a reliable supply and a safe handling service to inject hydroprocessing catalyst sulfiding agent, we have developed an in-line proprietary H2S analyser combined with real-time data telemetry so that catalyst activation procedures can be better optimized. With a  few case studies we have, attendees will discover how to achieve a shorter and a more effective catalyst sulfiding operation while keeping all key parameters under close control.

About the author

Francis became a Chemical Engineer in 1991 and received his Ph.D degree in 1995 from the University of Lyon in France, working with Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP), in heterogeneous catalysis applied to catalytic isobutene dehydrogenation on highly selective platinium-tin catalyst. He joined Arkema in 1997 and has almost 20 years’ experience in sulfur chemicals and their applications. In 1997, he first took the responsibility of research and development projects for sulfur chemicals in refining and petrochemistry until 2006.

During this period, he developed an application laboratory, implementing new steamcracker and hydrotreating unit pilots at the Lacq research centre, in France. He managed R&D collaboration projects with Technip, Total, Axens. In 2006, he took the responsibility of the global technical support for dimethyldisulfide  (DMDS) clients and more particularly, has developed the service for hydrotreating catalyst sulfiding and DMDS injection called Carelflex. Since January, Francis is responsible for the business development of Arkema’s thiochemicals in Oil & Gas market.