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Catalysts Q&A with MERYT Catalysts & Innovation

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Hydrocarbon Engineering recently spoke to Dr Meritxell Vila, Founder & CEO, and Nieves Álvarez, Senior Advisor in Oil Refining/Petrochemical Technology, at MERYT Catalysts & Innovation about a range of topics concerning catalyst technology and services

How can catalyst technology help refiners to get the most out of bottom of the barrel resources?

Nieves Álvarez: When we talk about bottom of barrel, we are talking about streams with high molecular weights, heteroatomic functional groups that replace hydrogen atoms in the end molecules, or highly conjugated and aromatic, which result in streams with a high deficit of hydrogen or a very low H/C.

The H/C ratio is directly associated with the fuel value of the hydrocarbon mixture. To improve the quality of the bottom of the barrel fraction, the heteroatomic molecules need to be removed and the H/C ratio needs to be increased to values in the order of 1:6.

This change in the H/C ratio can be achieved either by increasing the hydrogen content or by decreasing the carbon content.According to the followed approach, these processes fall into two broad categories:

  • Non-catalityc carbon rejection processes (those that eliminate part of the C-atoms from the molecules): coker, visbreaking, flexicoking, solvent deasphalting (SDA).
  • Catalytic and H-addition processes (those that increment their relative H-content): hydrocracking (HCK) and hydroprocessing (HDP) in general, HDT/MHC/HC/RFCC/ENI’s slurry technology/catalytic ebullated reactors.

A comparison between thermal (rejection carbon) and catalytic processes for the improvement of bottom of the barrel is the conversion improvement and the final mass losses. Using a process with a specialised catalyst, the conversion grows from 50 to 60% (thermal process) to 95% (catalyst process), with the advantage of better product quality and fewer mass losses.

How can catalyst solutions help companies to reduce their energy consumption and emissions?

Dr. Meritxell Vila: The definition of a catalyst is a material that reduces the energy needed to perform a chemical reaction. Therefore, any improvement in the design of new catalysts or even in the optimal utilisation of the current catalyst means energy savings for the refinery or the petrochemical plant and, therefore, lower emissions. Many scientists around the world are working intensively every day to improve current catalysts and design new catalysts that can perform the required reactions at lower temperature and pressure, or with higher selectivity. The selectivity is an important subject because higher purity means the formation of fewer byproducts, and this avoids additional separation steps or less intensive separation units downstream of the reactor.

Furthermore, in order to reduce emissions, new technologies are emerging to convert CO2 that derives from flue gas into chemicals and fuels, where catalysts play a key role. In this sense, refineries will install new catalytic units to convert the CO2 emissions into valuable products, thus applying circular economy to their processes.

What R&D processes do you have in place to develop the next generation of catalysts?

Dr. Meritxell Vila: At MERYT Catalysts & Innovation we firmly believe that research and development (R&D) is crucial for the discovery of new catalysts and for the improvement of traditional catalysts, which are essential for the energy transition. In this sense, we focus our efforts on obtaining applicable results by establishing very close and profitable collaborations for both parties with the most advanced research groups in catalysis. MERYT is committed to collaborating with the most brilliant research brains in catalysts, and for this we develop R&D projects with pioneering teams in each type of catalyst in particular, in order to transfer these innovations to our customers. The areas of research in which we are most involved are those that we consider essential to the energy transition. In that sense, we are focusing on the development of catalysts for the conversion of CO2 to methanol and other products.

What role will catalyst technology play in the transition to low-carbon energy?

Dr. Meritxell Vila: As previously mentioned, the definition of a catalyst is a material that increases the reaction rate by reducing the activation energy required. Therefore, any improvement in the performance of current catalysts or the design of new catalysts will play an important role in the transition to low-carbon energy. An area that is especially important is the role of catalysts in the conversion of CO2 to chemicals, because this reaction allows CO2 that is emitted to be removed and reused, closing the cycle of the carbon, and therefore creating a circular economy. And there are many challenges for catalysts in the circular economy. For example, the treatment of pyrolysis oil derived from recycled plastics or urban residues is a great field of development for catalysts and specific adsorbents. Another important role of catalysts in low-carbon energy is in the production of biofuels. Catalysts must be adapted to treat many different biofeeds and, in some cases, specific adsorbents will be required to pretreat the biofeeds.

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