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Special Report: Honeywell UOP develops the next catalyst breakthroughs

by Arabian Oil & Gas Staff on Jun 14, 2017


Oleflex process unit of AL WAHA Petrochemicals Company located in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, which efficiently converts propane into propylene, using special UOP catalysts.
Oleflex process unit of AL WAHA Petrochemicals Company located in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, which efficiently converts propane into propylene, using special UOP catalysts.

The nations of the Middle East represent a diversity of challenges for the efficient and economical conversion of crude oil into fuels and petrochemicals. At their core, these challenges are chemistry problems on an enormous scale – and each one of them comes with an elusive solution requiring ingenuity, innovation and perseverance.

Honeywell UOP has operated in the Middle East since 1963, shortly after commercial refining began in the region. That year, UOP started a Merox unit at the Ras Tanura refinery in Saudi Arabia, followed shortly after by hydroprocessing units at the Shuaiba refinery in Kuwait, and the region’s first hydrocracker at the Jeddah Oil Refinery, also in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of other projects were added in the decades that followed.

Honeywell UOP always has been proud of its projects – and its customers – in the Middle East. If the heart of every project is a process technology, then the lifeblood of every process technology is the catalyst.

The role of the catalyst is amazing. By merely touching hydrocarbon molecules, it causes them to take on specific and intended new forms. From an oily soup, catalysts can produce a range of valuable fuels and petrochemicals that deliver prosperity and a standard of living that could not have been dreamt of a century ago.

Legacy of Vladimir Ipatieff 

Catalysts were first applied to petroleum refining in 1933. That year, a UOP scientist conducted the first successful application of a catalyst to polymerise refinery by-products. That scientist was Vladimir Ipatieff.

After a distinguished career in his native Russia, Ipatieff immigrated to the United States to work for UOP. It was there, in a laboratory near Chicago, that he theorised, tested and proved that phosphoric acid embedded in clay would polymerise waste products generated by the refining process, converting them into fuel-range hydrocarbons.

While other catalytic processes were developed by other scientists during this period, it was Ipatieff’s catalytic polymerisation that formed the basis for much of the basic catalytic science in petroleum refining over the ensuing decades.

Under Ipatieff’s leadership, UOP scientists developed new catalysts capable of producing more powerful fuels – and later, other new catalytic processes that gave birth to the petrochemicals industry. Much of this was made possible by the development of synthetic zeolites, which made possible new classes of catalysts and adsorbents for hydrocracking, isomerisation, and paraxylene and cumene production.

Beyond his scientific genius, Ipatieff’s reputation had an enduring effect on UOP. The most promising chemical engineers in the world sought to join UOP in the hope that they might work under the great Ipatieff. His mere presence attracted the greatest talent in the world, and that talent developed the best technology in the world.

Into a Golden Age

Three generations later, catalytic science is entering a Golden Age. Despite 80 years of stunning technological achievement, we have only scratched the surface of what catalysts can do.

The keyword for the industry in this new age is process intensification. In simple terms, this means creating new catalyst-enabled processes that perform multiple chemical conversions in fewer steps. Instead of a dozen or more process units to convert a feedstock into a range of products, the same processes might be performed more effectively with half the number of units.

This will profoundly affect the economics of refineries and petrochemical plants by lowering energy requirements, reducing the production of low-value by-products, and conserving the only commodity in refining that is more precious than oil – water. These simpler processes, all enabled by more capable and efficient catalysts, promise to reduce capital requirements, as well as operating costs.

These new catalysts and the processes these enable will allow Middle Eastern refining companies to successfully enter downstream petrochemical markets, produce cleaner-burning transportation and marine fuels – for the domestic market and for export. They also will allow Middle Eastern refiners and petrochemical manufacturers to ‘move at the speed of innovation’, and maintain close technological parity with the best competitors in the world.

Honeywell UOP created another milestone last year, when it introduced the IsoAlky™ process, the first successful new liquid alkylation process in 75 years. This process replaces simple mineral acids such as HF and sulphuric acid with ionic liquids, highly engineered catalytic materials that embody low volatility and vapour pressure, with high acidity. With far simpler handling requirements and on-site regeneration, the IsoAlky process produces a high-quality alkylate product.

Honeywell UOP also returned to the hydrotreating category last year, with a range of catalysts that are effective at removing sulphur and nitrogen from hydrocarbon feeds. These new catalysts will help refiners meet new global standards for ultra-low sulphur transportation fuels such as gasoline and diesel, without costly revamps of their equipment.

Collaboration with KFUPM

Today, much of Honeywell UOP’s advanced catalyst development is occurring in the regions where it will be used. Honeywell UOP has been working since 2011 with professors and researchers at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran to develop innovative new catalytic processes for producing paraxylene. These new processes allow refiners and aromatics producers to increase production of paraxylene from a wider range of feedstocks.

The collaboration with the University supports Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts to diversify its economy, significantly expanding its downstream industries, while strengthening the University’s capabilities in catalysts and catalytic process development and commercialisation.

In addition to unlocking new revenue streams for local industries, cooperation at the academic level benefits the technical skills and development of engineering talent in the Kingdom through joint training efforts. Since 2014, Honeywell UOP scientists have led graduate level courses on catalysis in refining and petrochemicals at King Fahd University.

Honeywell UOP also provides summer training to the University’s chemical engineering students at its lab in Dhahran Techno Valley. In the same spirit that aspiring chemical engineers came to work with Ipatieff, Honeywell UOP is proud that young engineers from across the Middle East make this ‘UOP University’ part of their career development.

Honeywell UOP hopes that the next breakthroughs in catalytic science – those that solve the immense challenges faced by refiners and petrochemical manufacturers in the Middle East – will be developed in Middle East laboratories by engineers who call this region their home.


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