Andrey Kleymenov, Head of Technical Policy and Innovation at JSC Gazprom Neft’s Oil Refining Directorate, answers questions from Gazprom magazine.
Our research base
— Andrey Vladimirovich, how did the company manage to establish a centralized approach to research and development (R&D)?
— Gazprom Neft senior management began to address the issue of the importance of a systematic approach to R&D in 2009, developing and safeguarding a strategy for innovation in oil refining. The key objective here was improving refining depth, as well as improving quality and ecological standards. Our department was entrusted with management of R&D. In practice, that means identifying and implementing long-term initiatives of real value to the company.
I would point to several stages in the development of R&D, internally. Initially, we were just looking at pre-existing solutions as offered by academic institutions. But we’re at a different level now — we’ve begun developing a range of pilot facilities on the basis of which we can now conduct research under conditions that are a bit closer to those in commercial production.
— And how is research being conducted now?
— We utilise laboratory facilities at various scientific institutions, as well as the micro-pilot facilities offered by these: and that’s vital, but it’s not always enough for the commercial implementation of new technologies.
— Do you plan to establish a single, comprehensive research centre?
— We’re currently considering the establishment of a series of geographically distributed pilot facilities — partly within our refineries, partly within other partner institutions.
On the whole, moving on from the “framework” stage means that the we will, over the next year, be able to do some of this work ourselves. But, for the moment, we’re only planning to cover the key areas. Certain areas of research, I think, demand high-cost equipment as well as the technical proficiency of academic staff: which makes it more viable to do this through specialist institutions or through branches of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
— And what sort of lead times are you working towards in establishing your R&D facilities?
— In 2016 we, together with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ A.V. Topchiev Institute of Petrochemical Synthesis, initiated a solid acid catalyst alkylation test facility, in Elektrogorsk. We are also currently considering the possibility of establishing a hydro-cracking test facility (for refining heavy oil residues). In the future, such a test facility will allow us to implement technologies which will take refining depth up to almost 100 percent. On that basis, up to 97 percent of tar will be utilised to produce light oil products.
— What’s driving your planning strategy? What are your priorities?
— All company-level objectives — those directed at implementing global strategy for the development of Gazprom Neft’s refining assets — these are universal, and can be implemented at all plants. Proposals often arise with regard to current processes. For example, at the Moscow Refinery we don’t like having to regenerate a certain catalyser every 25 days: our specialists think that doing this could impact our achieving certain key objectives for 2020, and so are looking at ways of improving this. Thus, we have developed a bespoke new catalyst which lasts twice as long and meets our needs more closely. We estimate the impact of this to be worth about RUB159 million per year (as a result of less wastage in regenerating and replacing the catalyser).
— Who initiates developments, in your area?
— It can be the plants, or the Oil Refining Directorate at Gazprom Neft. And in addition to that, we review all proposals received from developers — which can be submitted by mail, or through the company website. Our specialists make an assessment of how necessary one proposal or another might be, in terms of technical feasibility and economic viability. Insofar as our company does not yet have the necessary research capability, work in new technologies is being conducted for us by various higher educational establishments, the Russian Academy of sciences, various scientific research establishments, and so on.
— Do you plan to increase the company’s research capabilities?
— Gazprom Neft does currently have its own Scientific and Research Centre, focused on oil production. We are looking into the possibility of setting up a similar establishment, but in refining.
— Do you work with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology?
— Of course. If Skoltech faculty have any interesting projects with promising results under laboratory testing, we evaluate these in terms of viability in production, and set about developing them.
Five in every 100
— How many projects get selected?
— Out of every 100 projects we probably take about five under review. At the moment, for example, we’re looking at a project from one of the Skoltech residents, “Synthesis in New Gas Technologies”. This company proposes to bring a range of secondary process lines to Gazprom Neft’s refining facilities, and turn them into high-margin products. We have to understand how necessary such products might actually be to us, and whether or not such a proposal is technically feasible (in commercial production). We now have to prove this, in practice.
— And what indicators might change in moving from laboratory conditions to actual production?
— Well, for example, laboratory testing was undertaken under normal atmospheric pressure. And on this, whatever pressure necessary for production, depends the tensile strength of the construction.
— Are there any applications from developers that you could highlight for us?
— We recently began working on an interesting method for improving the catalyst efficiency. A typically achievable improvement would be increasing reaction time by a matter of milliseconds. Out of the blue, we were informed of laboratory tests under one particular method under which catalytic activity increased exponentially! It was amazing, we initially greeted this announcement with disbelief, but we began to understand what was going on and got together with colleagues from the Ioffe Institute and the Boreskov Institute of Catalysts SB RAS. It turns out, it’s a viable operational methodology. But — it was made to work in a laboratory flask and we — well we have to make it work in flow reactors. We have to determine how long the effect lasts under industrial conditions. We’re currently investigating those processes to which it might be applied.
— In actual production?
— No, to start with we’re testing it in flow reactors at the Institute of Catalysis. By mid-2015 we should have the results, and will be able to come to a clear conclusion, and start developing an action plan. Thus far, we don’t see any problem with implementing this methodology at our plants. But there’s still much to do to turn the results of academic research into industrial technology. Thus far, using this methodology in production is proving pretty difficult, insofar as it requires expensive and complicated equipment. Interestingly, it can also be used to apply anti-corrosion metallic plating.
Scientific schools of thought
— What problems do you see in your activities here?
— We have to improve the regulatory regime, so that new materials are more proactively integrated into production, because without GOST (the Federal Agency on Technical Regulation and Metrology) registration there is no available guidance on design or application. The R&D market is currently in the early stages of development. And the problem is that experts, on one process or another, are extremely rare. There is a degree of choice, of course. But, very often, an interviewing panel has, at most, two or three candidates.
— Does the problem lie with scientific schools of thought?
— Yes. We lost a generation in the 1990s. Although, not everywhere — the Institute of Catalysis was one of the few institutions able to attract and retain young people. Of course, this problem of insufficient scientific candidates can be resolved. But for that you have to have a clear understanding of exactly what it is that industry needs from science, and to attract young scientists. It is vital that science and industry work more closely together. But I think the country will rectify this problem, in time.
I should stress, however, that we have developments unsurpassed anywhere in the world. But the problem in R&D is not to develop absolutely everything yourself. Indeed, apart from those developments implemented by the R&D function itself, R&D helps engender a deeper understanding of those technologies we procure. And such deeper understanding, in turn, helps us get the most out of such technology.