Will a Russian development that cleans up exhaust gases help our cities?

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Rosneft announced the start of commercial operation of unique hydro treatment catalysts of its own production. They are needed to produce ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuels from crude oil. This seemingly insignificant event puts out of sight a real breakthrough, which may contribute to solving several strategic tasks right away. Among those is reduction of the volume of harmful emissions from vehicle tailpipes and dramatic increase in Russia’s energy security. Forpost found out how realistic this is.

About five years ago, in a private conversation, a high-ranking oilman was quite skeptical about the extent to which the Western sanctions imposed in connection with the Crimean events had a negative impact on the domestic economy. He said that the restrictive measures would not cause us any serious damage, and for some industries, such as agriculture, they would even be a positive factor. At the same time, he pointed out that the technological sustainability of our country depends on such seemingly “minor things” as catalysts that are necessary for the production of fuels and oils.

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The problem is that almost no one produced them in Russia at that time, and all oil refining functioned on import supplies. It would have been enough just to ban them, and we would have faced a huge shortage of gasoline and diesel (theoretically, they can be produced without catalysts, but the product would be of such poor quality that the service life of transport would be a great deal shorter). The consequences could have been tragic: queues at gas stations, a significant drop in cargo traffic, shortages of basic necessities in the stores, a drastic acceleration of inflation... To put it short, a catastrophe comparable to the one that existed in the last years of the Soviet Union.

What are catalysts? And why are they so important? Visually they are small white trefoil-shaped pellets made of aluminum hydroxide. At refineries, they are loaded in layers into huge flow-through reactors up to 15 meters high for fuel purification, in particular, to remove nitrogen-containing and sulfur-containing compounds from it.

“The requirements for sulfur content in fuel are constantly getting tighter. At present, for example, the maximum permissible concentration is 10 ppm, i.e., one thousandth of a percent (0.001%). This means that the quality of the catalysts must also be as high as possible. During the entire period between repairs of the reactor at the refinery, which is at least a year, they must withstand enormous loads and not lose their properties. To make it clear, I will explain: we are talking about the work in an aggressive environment, at temperatures around 400 degrees Centigrade, pressures up to 5 Mega Pascal, as well as the impact of their own weight, when the upper layers press on the lower. The era of electric cars will not come soon, and urban residents want to breathe clean air now, so we need to constantly work to improve this technology. Especially since in addition to the environmental protection we are also talking about energy security of the country,” explained Rostislav Konoplin, a graduate student of St. Petersburg Mining University (his research on the “Problems of mastering industrial production of modern domestic hydrotreating catalysts” became the winner of the “Topical problems of subsoil use” International Competition of Young Scientists).

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For many years, our companies have been purchasing catalysts from the West, and the suppliers jealously controlled the entire process chain of their use, up to and including loading the shamrocks into the reactors and taking them out themselves, so that their Russian counterparts would not be capable of setting up their own production of similar products. However, recently large corporations, first of all Gazprom Neft and Rosneft, have made serious steps to change the situation. That is, to restore the scientific potential that existed in the Soviet times but was completely lost in the 1990s.

Representatives of Rosneft, in particular, announced in the first decade of December that they had started commercial operation at one of their subsidiaries (ROPC) of their own catalysts for hydro treatment of diesel fuel. According to the Company’s press service, the innovation is not only not inferior to imported samples but even surpasses them in a number of indicators. This has become possible due to the commissioning in January 2020 of an experimental industrial complex for the production of hydro treatment catalysts at the Novokuybyshevsk plant. The development of this project should reduce the share of their imports by Russian refineries from the current 90% to 50% within five years.

Saint Petersburg Mining University is also developing methods to increase the efficiency of catalysts and to reduce their production costs. Its scientists have already completed the stage of laboratory research and started tests at semi-industrial installations.

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“Our task is to improve the performance properties of carriers (aluminum oxide produced from feedstock - ed.) for catalysts. Today we are already receiving pilot batches on industrial lines and we are recording perfect results for a number of characteristics. In particular, strength properties, which increase resistance to mechanical destruction, as well as textural properties, which are responsible for efficiency, are quite good. I am sure that in the foreseeable future we will be ready to contribute to creating a competitive environment in the domestic market,” said Rostislav Konoplin.

Such studies are among the most demanded in Europe, and this is no coincidence. They are well aware that the end of the era of cars with internal combustion engines is still a long way off, and that it is necessary to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions from exhaust pipes here and now. Otherwise, the process of climate change, which is taking place on the planet, may pass the point of no return.

For Russia, the creation of its own production of high-quality catalysts is also a matter of increasing the country’s energy security. An equally ambitious goal is to create an entire industry practically from scratch, with a turnover of billions, which is destined to grow over the next few decades. In other words, it is capable of making a significant contribution to increasing Russia’s GDP.

For example, Rosneft’s refineries need hydrotreating catalysts, which make up about 40% of the entire catalyst market, about 2,000 tons a year, their cost is about 2.5 billion rubles. Today almost all of this money goes to the accounts of Western partners, but in the near future it will remain in the country. Naturally, this will happen only in case of further development of specialized domestic technologies and deeper integration of science with production.

It should be noted that Rostislav Konoplin’s work “Problems of mastering industrial production of modern domestic hydrotreating catalysts” will be presented at the final scientific session of the “Young Leaders of Science – 2020.” The International Competence Center for Mining Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO and St. Petersburg Mining University are holding it on December 14, 2020.