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Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Catalyst

Within the chemical industry, catalysts have historically been viewed as a bit of a sideshow to the main event, whether that’s manufacturing millions of tons of plastic or an ingredient for a hair-care product.

Rings or spheres, tablets or pellets, ears or no ears, the magic of a catalyst’s geometry is largely lost on customers who throw them into the chemical pot and focus on the bottom line. It doesn’t help that new products take a decade to develop while scientists agonise over shapes and the best way to arrange them in their bed in a chemical plant.

David Hughes, a chemical industry veteran turned adviser at New Normal Consulting, spent years at SABIC, Huntsman and ICI and remembers well how it often went. A plant operator would be acutely in tune with the health of his or her catalyst and how to nurse it to maximise its ability to speed up or lower the temperature or pressure of a chemical reaction to lower costs. Catalysts would only likely pop up on management’s radar when faced with the financial headache of replacing them after a few years or so, or perhaps when deciding which one to use for a new facility under construction.

Climate change could change all of that. Used to make more than 90% of all chemicals, catalysts could be moving out of the shadows.

Coming up with a product capable of squeezing that extra one or two percent more in efficiency from a plant remains the bread and butter, but there’s a growing buzz around what they can do in areas like the hydrogen economy, ammonia, sustainable aviation fuel and carbon capture. Chemical manufacturing processes that have been around for aeons — like Haber Bosch and Fischer Tropsch — are maxxed out in some instances and will need updating. As the chemical industry scrambles to meet net zero pledges, it will be looking to catalysts for many of the answers.

Given the specialist nature of the technology, the heavily protected IP attached to licensed catalysts, and the experience it needs to develop new products, the catalysts sector remains an exclusive club. There are only a handful or so in the trade: Clariant, BASF, Haldor Topsoe, Honeywell’s UOP, Johnson Matthey and WR Grace among them. If you are an outsider wanting to get into it, the surest way is via M&A as you need to be able offer customers a full slate of products to cover multiple chemical processes. Saudi Arabia’s flagship chemical business, SABIC, a big user of catalysts, has acquired a sizable stake in Clariant, one of its key suppliers, while Standard Industries recently bought about 5% of Johnson Matthey.* (*This sentence has been corrected to remove an error in the first version of the story.)

It’s a fiercely competitive and cut-throat market where you are only as good as your last product. Customers can be ruthless about switching to a new supplier when the next change-over comes around.

“If you are not leading, you are out,” said Stefan Heuser, Clariant’s SVP of catalysts.

I had an opportunity to talk with Heuser and Clariant’s head of catalyst R&D, Marvin Estenfelder, at a teach-in event held by the Swiss company in London. Onboard a barge on an arm of the Grand Union Canal, they waxed about current trends, what to expect in the future, and the catalyst curve balls that sustainability is starting to throw up. (photo left: Estenfelder)

One of those is maleic anhydride. This chemical risked being consigned to the backwaters but is now enjoying a huge renaissance as it has become an important building block for biodegradable plastics and China is clamping down on single-use plastics.

Clariant also showcased its CATOFIN process for polypropylene, increasingly a go-to recyclable polymer for EVs, medical gear, packaging, pretty much anything. Like maleic anhydride, global demand is going through the roof and currently the traditional manufacturing process that refineries and crackers employ don’t produce enough of the byproduct propylene, needed to make the polymer.

In both cases, catalysts are stepping in to fill the void.

Clariant’s CATOFIN is a world within a chemical world, where a first catalyst is used for the propane dehydrogenation part, then yet another one is loaded into the plant to create a catalyst-derived internal heat source for the final conversion into polypropylene. Clariant says the benefits of the Heat Generating Material are reduced energy and CO2 and an increase of up to 3% in selectivity (the buzz word used in Heuser’s and Estenfelder’s world for the ability to direct the reaction to form particular products and excluding others).

One issue for the catalyst industry when it comes to sustainability is its low top-speed, and Heuser said there’s not that much to be done there. With any new innovation, first comes the project itself, then the financing, followed by the labs, construction of the plant and then the time to get it up and running. The topic of sustainability among customers may well have moved from say a Level 5 priority to Level 2, but the scope to accelerate is limited, he added. And neither the technology or the regulatory framework is in place yet, so going any quicker is physically impossible, he added.

Apart from a few outliers like MA and PP, Heuser calculates that 95% of the investments in catalysts over the next couple of years will be in so-called classical chemicals, like ethylene oxide and styrene. A bright spot is the start-up scene, which is now recovering from the Trump era and the relaxation of environmental legislation. It’s roaring back to life, he added.

Taking on the hydrogen economy will take time, beginning with the conversion of grey hydrogen into the blue variety via by carbon capture and sequestration in spent oil reservoirs so it’s not emitted into the atmosphere.

“The only reason why it’s seen as boring is because it’s so bloody slow,” said Heuser, who started his career in 1985 with the iconic German chemical company Hoechst. “It takes nearly 10 years of development for a catalyst, then people look at our product and the most exciting thing about it is the shape. Other chemical products have a color, or they smell, or they do something nice to your hair.”

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