Open-market catalyst testing

If you have shopped for a new car recently, you have probably looked at consumer buying guides for comparative data to help with your decision.

George Hoekstra, Hoekstra Trading

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Article Summary

When it comes to making an important purchase like that, you want hard data to compare your options. For most high budget consumer products, you can go on the internet and find data and ratings from independent labs that do side-by-side testing of competitive brands. This is also true for hundreds of industrial products like electronic components, medical equipment and building products.

It is not true for refinery catalysts. Refinery engineers often spend months sorting through plant data, vendor data, glossy brochures and hearsay, trying to make a fair assessment of competitive catalysts. Usually the best they can do is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Hard data from side-by-side testing has not been generally available.

In 2009, a group of refiners and catalyst suppliers worked with Hoekstra Trading LLC and C Solutions LTD., to develop a standardised pilot plant test for diesel hydrotreating catalysts. In the subsequent three years, this group tested 28 catalyst samples, generating a database of side-by-side test results and rankings of competitive brands. The data was released in three annual reports, on 31 May  2010, 2011 and 2012 (Figure 1).

In addition to side-by-side test data, the reports contain analysis of published claims about the products tested, to help engineers separate fact from fiction and see through the myriad of marketing claims.

“You helped us see things in a whole new light”, said one engineer. Another said, “This is great work that really helped us select the best catalyst — and the analysis of supplier product claims was very enlightening”. 

Some of our test samples were provided directly by catalyst vendors, and some were field samples from commercial batches that had been sold to refiners.

When the project was started in 2009, the idea of open-market testing was totally new to the catalyst vendors, who were accustomed to proprietary testing done under non-disclosure agreements. They were initially reluctant to submit test samples without non-disclosure agreements. But some of them came around very quickly to the idea of open-market testing, and now most of them are providing samples routinely on request. Albemarle’s KF 767 and Haldor Topsøe’s TK-576 BRIM have served as benchmarks in the programme.

The standardised test is called The 10-20 Test – the name indicates a product sulphur specification of 10 ppm for a standard feed containing 20% light cycle oil. It is a 15-day pilot plant test run at constant pressure, gas-to-oil rate and space velocity. Temperature is varied at three levels, as shown in Table 1. There is a high-
pressure and a low-pressure version.

Figure 2 shows test results for Albemarle’s KF-767, with product sulphur charted for each day of the test. In the first three days, the product sulphur stabilises at 17 ppm on light gas oil (0%LCO) at low temperature. On day four, 20% LCO is added at low temperature and the catalyst responds to the more difficult feed, with product sulphur increasing to 36 ppm by day six.

The chart shows how the catalyst then continues to respond as temperature is varied on three-day intervals through completion of the test. Product nitrogen, density and hydrogen consumption are also measured.

This test has now been run on 28 samples, including most catalysts of interest today for ultra-low-sulphur diesel, some older generation products and even some catalysts designed for VGO service. 

From the start, our goal was to make good independent test data available to any refiner at affordable cost. By design, an open-market programme will offer the data to anyone willing to share in the cost. In order to get samples for testing, the group had to work through strong resistance from some catalyst suppliers who are accustomed to keeping such data hidden under a veil of secrecy. In efforts to gain their participation, we offered those suppliers the opportunity to help design the protocols, to test their samples blind (with codenames instead of actual brand names), to preview and comment on all data before their release, and to include their comments verbatim in the reports. When even these steps were not acceptable to a supplier, we tested field samples.

Catalyst procurement professionals are included among our most interested clients. Catalyst is a big third-party cost item, with annual budgets of $100 million in some cases. Independent testing sets the stage for a more competitive catalyst selection process. To help with this aspect of catalyst selection, the reports also contain market analysis including hard data on supplier costs, pricing and profitability. 

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