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Research Gives Rise to a Market

Research Gives Rise to a Market

Interview with Gazprom Neft Moscow Refinery CEO Arkady Egizarian

Gazprom magazine Arkady Egizarian

Gazprom Neft Moscow Refinery CEO Arkady Egizarian answers our questions.

From manufacturing to science

— Arkady Mamikonovich, how long has your enterprise been involved in research and development (R&D) for?

— R&D has been going on throughout the history of the company, at varying degrees of intensity, at various times. But systematic work really began in 2011. By that time we’d managed to bring together all the necessary resources, and worked out a course of development directed at improving refining depth.

It goes without saying, in managing such a process it made no sense to consider our plant separately from the parent company. Right at the beginning, a specialist structure for R&D was established under the auspices of the Gazprom Neft Oil Refining Directorate. The refining facility was faced with a range of objectives and we, in turn, began to put in place our own R&D division, with various units within the plant responsible for project implementation.

— Do you still have this specialist unit?

— We have technologists working for us, reporting to R&D, and every project is assigned a dedicated “project champion” or curator. Basically, we use the services of third-party developers, assigning them projects that are of interest to us.

— And just who are these “developers”?

— Scientific institutions and scientific production organisations. This country has excellent specialists, well-versed in refining. Those we work most closely with include the Russian Academy of Sciences’ A.V. Topchiev Institute of Petrochemical Synthesis, under the direction of S.N. Khadzhiev, and the Boreskov Institute of Catalysts SB RAS, headed by Academician V.N. Parmon.

The fate of technology

— What sort of work are you doing with them at the moment?

— Work in solid acid alkylation. Alkylation is used to obtain high-octane blending agents for automotive gasolines. We have the raw materials for this process now — isobutane, butylene — but no facilities: our plant is located within the city limits, and the methodologies used in this process currently (sulphuric and hydro-fluoric acid alkylation) are high-risk. For that reason, many organisations conduct solid acid alkylation with technologies that are far lower-risk: but there have been no major breakthroughs as yet.

The process has proved promising, as carried out at the Topchiev Institute, under laboratory conditions. We plan to launch a pilot project at the Electrogorsk Refining Institute in late-2015, early-2016. In 2017 we should have the necessary results and, if the technology can prove itself in quality terms, we can begin working on a basic outline for an industrial facility. On that basis, by the end of the decade we could have a working industrial facility and, from that, an alkylate as a component of gasoline.

— What impact will that have on gasoline?

— In terms of our product line, it will result in more gasoline. This is beneficial economically, since it means we will be able to produce more motor fuel from less oil. In other words, it will improve refining efficiency.

— And what will be the outcome for the technology, given that no one has anything like it at the moment?

— If everything turns out right, then — together with the developers — we will be able to patent the technology, and then — sell it on. All the evidence suggests that this technology will be far more cost-effective than those currently available, since it will result in lower operational costs as a result of being less energy intensive, will produce less waste, and will be far simpler to use.

We have a product!

— What area of work would you highlight as being the most important?

— Catalysts. They’re what’s driving the technology. On selling you an installation, the producer will make clear which catalyst should be used. If you use any other — your guarantee is rendered void. And when the warranty period runs out and it’s time to change the catalyst, many refineries buy precisely the same again, without taking the trouble to look for alternatives, even though catalysts (in comparison with other items of expenditure) cost pennies. This has led to a situation in which there has, until recently, been no market for Russian catalysts. We think that what we need to do is actively promote — and improve — domestic production.

At the refinery we currently use the BAK-70 catalyst for oligomerization of olefins, in particular: some 70 years in production, if not more. The useful life for this product, before it needs to be replaced, is 25 days. Frequent replacement at high temperatures means high consumption of energy. We’ve now had a more energy-efficient substitute developed, with a running time of 60 days, also operational at lower temperatures. We’re currently looking for a site at which to produce a test batch of this catalyst (which will, most likely, be in the Moscow or Tverskaya Oblast). We’ll load the test batch into our current reactors and see how the catalyst works. In this case, we also plan to take ownership of the technology, which we will then be able to offer to other refineries working with the BAK-70 catalyst.

Our refineries work extensively with the Boreskov Institute of Catalysts SB RAS. This institution has more than a few developments in hand, and excellent potential — and, incidentally, is commercially successful, since there’s good demand for its developments.

We’re currently conducting work with the Institute in catalysts, and their application in various hydro-treating processes. We see good potential here. We also have one product ready to go to market — a catalyst for hydro-treatment of catalytic cracking gasolines. We plan to have this patented as soon as possible, and to use this catalyst instead of an import.

— Yours is better?

— Certainly no worse, and bearing in mind the benefits of local production, using this will prove far more profitable. Added to which, we can continue to work with this technology, and further improve it. After testing the final version of the catalyst in our own facilities we can roll it out to other Gazprom Neft enterprises.

— And is production of internationally produced catalysts in Russia localised?

— No, they’re all imported. International companies don’t see localisation of that kind of production as viable.

In research

— And what other areas area you involved in?

— We’re continuing our work with the Yasintez Research Institute in methoxylation — on the interaction of methyl alcohol with olefins, resulting in the formation of alcohol ethers — again, work directed at the production of high-octane additives. This process is already being used at the refinery, we just need to improve the productivity of the current installations.

In 2014 we, together with colleagues from Total, received a patent for the production of modified bitumen.

We are also doing what I would describe as quite ground-breaking work, in the refining of solid residues, using nitrous oxide in breaking down hydrocarbon chains (work on this was started in 2014). Scientific research in this is ongoing.

— How do you manage such research?

— We know the industry and work closely with those institutions that have already done some research in this field. Apart from those already cited above, I would also mention the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, and the National Research Centre “Kurchatov Institute”, with whom we have, since 2013, been investigating the feasible application of oil sludge plasma conversion.

— How do you support scientific research?

— The company initiates work in one area or another and, through the R&D Committee, takes a decision on whether or not there is anything there that could prove important to the business. Then, the objectives of such work having been established, contractors are appointed (from science or academia) and, together with them, a budget is put together. Work is 100 percent financed by ourselves. While we can’t know, in advance, how much financing will be required for one development or another, our experience generally allows us to plan financing quite precisely. Virtually all projects require some small investment in their initial stages, and many projects are in development for several years; the cost of these is quite clear. But, I would stress, scientists are interested not just in financing but in access to technology.

— Scientific institutions come to you with proposals?

— Of course. We’re all working in the same industry, and we all know each other. The scientific institutions outline a plan of action and identify those producers they think it might be interesting to us. So, yes, they come to us with their proposals.

— What are your plans regarding R&D?

— To bring ongoing projects into production.

— What catalysts are currently being used in your new installations?

— New installations have been licensed, and are under warranty. That means that we are currently using a catalyst that will need to be replaced only in 2016–17. At that point we will have a good domestic alternative. What’s important here is not just the economies to be made in establishing our own production facility (they’re pretty small), so much as the access it will give us to technology; as well as the opportunity to improve this, together with domestic developers, across various types of raw materials, under different regimes, and in various installations. And, of course, the opportunity to create a market for Russian producers.