From fossil to renewable energy: a key role for catalysis
In almost every technology developed by Shell at ETCA, a chemical reaction occurs to convert one substance into another. A catalyst accelerates almost every chemical reaction. Traditionally, catalysis research focused mainly on the conversion of fossil feedstocks into fuels and lubricants. Today, the focus of this research shifts towards the conversion of renewable energy to new energy carriers, such as hydrogen, or the conversion of CO2 into synthetic kerosene, for example.
But what exactly is a catalyst and why is that research needed? A catalyst is a substance that forms the base of a chemical reaction without the catalyst itself being used. Key properties of a catalyst are activity, selectivity and stability.
The activity determines to what extent the chemical reaction accelerates, with a high selectivity, there are as few waste products as possible and the stability determines the lifespan of the catalyst.
A catalyst does not have these properties automatically. The development of a catalyst can take years. Typical catalysts used by Shell consist of active components and a so-called carrier material. The active substance is usually a metal such as nickel, cobalt, iron, silver or platinum. The carrier material is often porous with a large internal surface, a bit like a fine sponge. On that internal surface, the active ingredient of the catalyst is then dispersed. That is where the chemical reaction takes place.
ETCA makes catalysts in a so-called catalyst kitchen. First, we mix the various powder components and then we add a liquid to knead a kind of dough. This dough is pressed into spaghetti-like strings by a so-called extruder. These long strings are baked and then broken in little pieces. The researchers first make the catalysts at gram scale and test whether they meet the requirements. After a positive result, the extruder can produce the catalyst at kilogram scale, suitable for testing in a test installation. Once the development in ETCA is completed, the catalysts can be made on a large scale. Even if the catalysts are used in real plants, ETCA continues to play a major role in technical support.
Traditional catalysis research has resulted in a considerable number of innovations by Shell over the years, with the catalyst being key to success. One example is the gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. This process converts natural gas into liquid products such as diesel, kerosene and lubricants. Without a catalyst, this technology is not technically feasible.
Below are two examples of why catalysts can now play an important role in the energy transition:
- To store a surplus of renewable electricity, such as from wind turbines and solar panels, electricity can be converted into hydrogen. A catalyst helps to produce more hydrogen with the same amount of energy.
- Catalysts can convert CO2 into fuels, making them carbon neutral when used.
Shell researchers are working hard to further develop the new catalysts needed for the energy transition.
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