Unitel's Randhava: The Catalyst Race

Unitel's Randhava: The Catalyst Race
Catalysts are essential to refinery operations. Enhancing their level of performance is an ongoing challenge.

Used to facilitate processes such as fluid catalytic cracking, hydrotreating, hydrocracking, isomerization, alkylation, and reforming, catalysts are essential to refinery operations. Enhancing their level of performance is an ongoing challenge.

"The science of catalyst development is highly evolutionary," said Ravi Randhava, President of Unitel Technologies, Inc. "Major catalyst manufacturers and refining companies continue to seek and implement improvements in catalyst performance. The effectiveness of a catalyst must also be predicted in order to deal with variations in feedstock."

Every Little Bit Helps

Even slightly modifying a catalyst can yield dramatic cost savings. As a result, refiners are very interested in optimizing catalyst performance during each step of processing. The anticipated expansion of alternative fuels and chemicals production over the next decade is driving researchers worldwide to investigate catalyst formulations that would aid in processing the feedstocks from which they would be derived.

The anticipated expansion of alternative fuels and chemicals production over the next decade is driving researchers worldwide to investigate catalyst formations that would aid in processing the feedstocks from which they would be derived.

Specific alternative fuels and chemicals that reportedly would benefit from improved catalysis include fuel alcohols (particularly butanol), products manufactured using the Fischer-Tropsch process, dimethylether (DME), biodiesels, biolubricants, and biojet fuels."The manufacturing process for each of these fuels will require one or more catalysts," Randhava said, adding that effective catalysis has a direct impact on an alternative fuel's economics. "It stands to reason that improvements in catalyst activity will translate into higher profit margins."

The CTS/Octave test platform offered by Randhava's company is designed to analyze various catalyst "recipes." The system allows researchers to test and evaluate a catalyst over a range of temperatures, pressures, flow rates, and other process conditions. It is configured as a flexible bench-scale unit that can be readily modified as requirements change in scope. "There are an amazing number of new catalysts that are being proposed for the alternative fuel industry," Randhava said. "However, each one of these catalysts will need to be tested, evaluated and optimized -- and this is the function that is enabled by the Octave platform."

Lots of Competitors

According to Randhava, the competition among various catalyst developers is keen. "A significant number of companies that are involved in biofuels and other biochemicals are developing technologies based on catalytic reactions," he said, adding that such technologies necessarily follow the invention of a specific catalyst that has undergone testing. "Once the catalyst evaluation program has been successfully completed using Octave as the test facility, the program then moves to the next state of confirming the technology on a larger scale by conducting a pilot plant program," he continued. "After this program is completed, the technology is generally considered to be ready for demonstration."

"A 'winner' in the catalyst R&D race is a formula that produces activity rates in terms of conversion and selectivity that are significantly higher than those currently available," Randhava said. "The developers usually protect their winnings by establishing IP (intellectual property) positions and patenting the research and applications of the catalyst."

'A 'winner' in the catalyst R&D race is a formula that produces activity rates in terms of conversion and selectivity that are significantly higher than those currently available.'

A catalyst developer that finds the right recipe could reap immense rewards for the innovation. "The demand for various fuels is an almost infinite market in terms of commercial potential," Randhava continued. "It is quite possible that the winners in the alternative fuels industry will stand to earn significant revenues and profits that can range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars."

Steady Stream of Developers

Although he admits that commercialization may come slowly for some catalyst developers, Randhava noted that the demand for proven catalyst technologies for alternative fuels particularly those derived from biological sources should be steady. "There will be a slow but marked increase of bioderived fuels in the overall energy business sector," he said. "Current estimates call for a (market) penetration of 10 to 20 percent over the next 10 years. This is a very big number."

Thanks to an announcement last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the demand for catalyst testing should be on the rise for the next decade. On Wednesday, the EPA issued a rule to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS2). RFS2 requires biofuels production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. The majority of this volume (21 billion gallons) will need to come from advanced biofuels many of which have yet to be perfected.

"Implementation of RFS2 standards is to enable a significant increase in the amounts of fuels that will have to be produced within the next decade or so," concluded Randhava. "The next generation of fuels will use cellulosic types of materials as feedstocks. We firmly believe that this development will result in new technologies to make biofuels. A number of these new technologies will be based upon catalytic reactions."

Matthew V. Veazey has written about the oil and gas industry since 2000. Email Matthew at mveazey@rigzone.com

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