The catalyst kitchen
By changing the composition of molecules, one substance can be converted into another. A catalyst facilitates this process. Shell researchers such as Annemarieke create catalysts in a so-called catalyst kitchen. By using the right combination of ingredients and a good oven, you get the best catalyst, a bit like cooking. Not a 100% office job. “I spend a lot of time in the lab. I like to make something and then see if it works and optimize it further.”
What are you holding in your hands?
“We use this screw to push catalyst paste, a type of ceramic clay, through small holes. We call this extruding. The paste usually contains metals like iron or silver, which make the catalyst active. We fry the spaghetti-shaped strings in an oven until they are hard. Then we break the strings into small pieces, and we have a catalyst.”
What solution are you working on?
“Using a catalyst has multiple advantages. The activity of a catalyst ensures that a process runs faster. The selectivity of a catalyst ensures that fewer waste products are made and that processing costs are lower. Because a catalyst makes a process more efficient, the production process is cleaner, meaning, for example, lower CO2 emissions.”
What exactly do you do? And why?
“In the catalyst kitchen at ETCA I make catalysts for the GTL process. Qatar has the largest plant in the world for GTL products. This plant uses 50 different catalysts in different phases of the process. I mainly work on the development and ptimization of the catalyst that links the carbon atoms (C atoms) of methane gas together. A methane gas molecule consists of 1 C atom. If you link these C atoms together to chains of 5 to 12 Cs, you get petrol. Kerosene and diesel are chains of 12 to approximately 18 carbon atoms. With longer carbon chains you get lubricants and with even longer chains paraffin, a substance that looks like candle wax. Shell sells the paraffin to manufacturers who can, for example, make detergents or plastics (PE) with it.”
“If we develop a new catalyst that is one percent more active or selective, the plant can produce more product or save millions of euros.”
“Optimising catalysts therefore remains necessary. Once we at ETCA are completely satisfied with a new catalyst, we will try to make it on a large scale in a plant. If everything goes well, the new catalyst will eventually go in commercial scale production.”
What’s in it for the consumer?
“Currently, we are working a lot with natural gas as a building block. Because of our research, we will soon be able to use more and more CO2 as a raw material for the same products, including kerosene and petrol. This way we can recycle the CO2. To be able to do this we need a new type of catalysts. We are already working on those in our department.”
In almost every technology that Shell develops, a chemical reaction occurs to convert one substance into another. A catalyst makes almost every chemical reaction easier and more efficient. A catalyst is a substance via which the conversion takes place without it being used itself. An example of a process that uses catalysts is the gas-to-liquids (GTL) process. The GTL process uses natural gas instead of petroleum to make, for example, lubricants, cleaner burning transport fuels or raw materials for everyday products.
In vrijwel elke technologie die door Shell in ETCA ontwikkeld wordt, komt een chemische reactie voor om de ene stof in de ander om te zetten. Met een katalysator is vrijwel elke chemische reactie beter uitvoerbaar.
Het gas-to-liquids (GTL) proces gebruikt aardgas in plaats van olie om vloeibare producten te maken zoals brandstoffen voor voertuigen met dieselmotoren en brandstof voor vliegtuigen. Daarnaast kan het GTL-proces ook grondstoffen voor alledaagse producten zoals wasmiddelen, cosmetica, kunststof en smeermiddelen maken.
In collaboration with various partners, ETCA researchers are working hard on energy solutions for today and tomorrow. But what exactly are those solutions? And what’s in it for the consumer? Five Shell researchers show an object from their research and talk about what they do and why it matters. Read the short interviews here.