Do refineries become bio-refineries?

What will happen to oil refineries during the energy transition? On our numbers, liquid oil products will be needed past 2100, long after demand plateaus in the 2020s. Cleaner, more efficient technologies are therefore required in the downstream sector. This note considers whether refineries could increasingly be converted to bio-refineries.

Our evidence comes from the patent literature, as we have reviewed 3,000 patents from the leading 25 Energy Majors. 8% are focused on new energies (chart below, full details in our deep-dive note). Eni screens as the leader for converting refineries to bio-refineries, hence this note summarises its relevant patents on the topic.

Historical Context. Use of vegetable oils in diesel engines goes back to Rudolf Diesel, who, in 1900, ran an engine on peanut oil. Palm oil and peanut oil were both used as military diesel in Africa in WWII. However, vegetable fuels were abandoned due to high costs and inconsistent quality, compared with petroleum fuels.

Today’s vegetable oil fuel-blending components primarily contain Fatty Acid Methyl Esters (FAME). However, they cannot be blended beyond c7% without causing problems in auto engines. For example, FAME has a low energy content (38kJ/kg vs diesel at 45kJ/kg), a -5 – 15C cloud point, causes pollution in tanks, polymerises to form rubbers, causes fouling, dirties filters and contaminates lubricants.

Regulation is nevertheless stoking demand for more dio-diesel, going beyond the 7% threshold. Europe Directive 2009/28/C mandates 10% renewable material in diesel by 2020, up from 5% in 2014.

Eni is therefore converting refineries to bio-refineries, to upgrade renewable materials into “green diesel”. A 0.36MTpa facility started up at Porto Marghera, Venice in 2014. A larger, 0.7MTpa facility started at Gela in 2019. Both convert vegetable oils into diesel.

Patents indicate how they work. The starting point is a conventional oil refinery, with two sequential hydro-desulfurization units. For the conversion into a bio-refinery. these units are re-vamped into a hydrodeoxygenation reactor (HDO) and a subsequent hydro-isomerization reactor (ISO), shown in the schematic below.

  • HDO occurs in the presence of hydrogen, a sulfided hydrogenation catalyst from Group VIII or VIB metals, at 25-70 bar and 240-450C.
  • ISO occurs at 250-450C, 25-70bar and a Metal (Pt, Pd, Ni) Acid catalyst on an alumino-silica zeolite framework.
  • Upstream modifications. Pre-treatment processes, surge drums and heat-exchangers are installed upstream of each reactor.
  • Downstream modifications. The output products from the reactors will contain 1-5% H2S, which is removed in an acid gas treatment unit, and then a Claus unit for sulphur recovery; both reached via new connection lines.

The main advantage of this process is cost, which is said to be 80% lower than constructing a new facility. For example, the Porto Marghera project was budgeted at €200M. In its patents, Eni states: “This method is of particular interest within the current economic context which envisages a reduction in the demand for oil products and refinery margins”.

Further advantages are that the produced diesel has excellent properties, including a high octane index, optimum cold properties, high calorific value and a further by-product stream of commercial LPGs. Moreover, the efficiency of the converted facility is seen to be similar to one constructed anew.

The disadvantage is that blending of free fatty acids is limited to c20%. This is why the bio-refineries so far intake 80% palm oil (which contain <0.1% free fatty acids). Eni states: “The reactor used for effecting the HDO step, deriving, through the method of the present invention, from a pre-existing hydrodesulfurization unit, may not have a metallurgy suitable for guaranteeing its use in the presence of high concentrations of free fatty acids in the feedstock consisting of a mixture of vegetable oils. The reactors of the HDO/ISO units specifically constructed for this purpose, are in fact made of stainless steel (316 SS, 317 SS), to allow them to treat contents of free fatty acids of up to 20% by weight of the feedstock”. Processing a broader range of vegetable oils and other waste oils would require a more costly refinery re-vamp.

Further challenges are that the production of hydrogen and other industrial above will be energy intensive. Moreover, Eni’s 1MTpa of green diesel production capacity is only equivalent to c20kbpd of fuel. It will be challenging to source sufficient feedstocks to scale bio-refineries up to meet larger portions of the world’s overall fuel needs.

Our conclusion is therefore that bio-refineries have potential when re-purposing existing downstream facilities, preserving value in the very long-term future of the industry. However, further technological improvements are required before these facilities can scale up or deliver material, and truly decarbonised hydrocarbons. Out of Eni’s other refining patents, we are most positive on Eni Slurry Technology, which is a leading technology for IMO2020 (chart below). For details of other technology leaders in energy, please see our note, Patent Leaders.

Source: Rispoli, G., F. & Prati, C. (2018). Method for Re-Vamping a Conventional Mineral Oils Refinery to a Bio-Refinery. US Patent US2018079967.

Patent Leaders in Energy

Technology leadership is crucial in energy. It drives costs, returns and future resiliency. Hence, we have reviewed 3,000 recent patent filings, across the 25 largest energy companies, in order to quantify our “Top Ten” patent leaders in energy.


This 34-page note ranks the industry’s “Top 10 technology-leaders”: in upstream, offshore, deep-water, shale, LNG, gas-marketing, downstream, chemicals, digital and renewables.

For each topic, we profile the leading company, its edge and the proximity of the competition.

Companies covered by the analysis include Aramco, BP, Chevron, Conoco, Devon, Eni, EOG, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Petrobras, Repsol, Shell, Suncor and TOTAL.


More information? Please do not hesitate to contact us, if you would like more information about accessing this document, or taking out a TSE subscription.

Does Technology Drive Returns?

Technology drives 30-60% of energy companies’ return on capital. This is our conclusion after correlating 10 energy companies’ ROACEs against 3,000 patent filings. Above average technologies are necessary to generate above-average returns.


For the first time, we have been able to test the relationship between oil companies’ technical abilities and their Returns on Average Capital Employed (ROACE).

In the past, technical capabilities have been difficult to quantify, hence this crucial dimension has been overlooked by economic analysis in the energy sector.

Our new methodology stems from our database of 3,043 patents, filed by the Top 25 leading energy companies in 2018. The data cover upstream, downstream, chemicals and new energy technologies (chart below) . All the patents are further summarised, “scored” and classed across 40 sub-categories.

The methodology is to correlate our patent-scores for each company with the ROACE generated by the company in 2018. We ran these correlations at both the corporate level and the segment level…

Results: patent filings predict returns

Patent filings predict corporate returns. In 2018, the average of the Top 10 Integrated Oil Majors generated a Return on Average Capital Employed (ROACE) of 11%, based on our adjusted, apples-to-apples calculation methodology. These returns are 54% correlated with the number of patents filed by each Major (chart below).

Technology leaders are implied to earn c5% higher corporate returns than those deploying industry-average technologies, which is a factor of 2x.

Upstream patent filings also predict upstream returns, with an 85% correlation coefficient. The data are skewed by one Middle East NOC, which earns exceptionally high returns on capital, but even excluding this datapoint, the correlation coefficient is 65% (chart below).

The curve is relatively flat, with the exception of two outliers, implying that it is hardest to improve general upstream returns using technology. This may be because upstream portfolios are vast, spanning many different asset-types and geographies.

Downstream patent filings predict downstream returns, with an 80% correlation coefficient (chart below). However, our sample size is smaller, as we were unable to dis-aggregate downstream ROACE for all the Majors.

The curve is very steep, indicating that downstream technology leaders can surpass c20% returns on capital, versus c10% using industry-standard technologies.

Chemical patent filings predict chemical returns, with a 57% correlation coefficient (chart below). Again, our sample size is smaller, as we could only estimate chemicals ROACEs for some of the Majors.

The curve is also steep, with technology leaders earning c10-20% returns, versus low single digit returns for less differentiated players.

Overall, the results should matter for investors in the energy sector, for capital allocation within corporates, and for weighing up the benefits of in-house R&D. We would be delighted to discuss the underlying data with you in more detail.

Lost in the Forest?

In 2019, Shell pledged $300M of new investment into forestry. TOTAL, BP and Eni are also pursuing similar schemes. But can they move the needle for CO2? In order to answer this question, we have tabulated our ‘top five’ facts about forestry. We think Oil Majors may drive the energy transition most effectively via developing better energy technologies in their portfolios.


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Oil Companies Drive the Energy Transition?

There is only one way to decarbonise the energy system: leading companies must find economic opportunities in better technologies. No other route can source sufficient capital to re-shape such a vast industry that spends c$2trn per annum. We outline seven game-changing opportunities. Leading energy Majors are already pursuing them in their portfolios, patents and venturing. Others must follow suit.


Pages 2-3 show that today’s technologies are not sufficient to decarbonise the global energy system, which will surpass 100,000TWH pa by 2050. Better technologies are needed.

Pages 4-6 show how Oil Majors are starting to accelerate the transition, by developing these game-changing technologies. The work draws on analysis of 3,000 patents, 200 venture investments and other portfolio tilts.

Pages 7-13 profile seven game-changing themes, which can deliver both the energy transition and vast economic opportunities in the evolving energy system. These prospects cover electric mobility, gas, digital, plastics, wind, solar and CCS. In each case, we find leading Oil companies among the front-runners.

IMO 2020. Fast Resolution or Slow Resolution?

The downstream industry is currently debating whether IMO 2020 sulphur regulations will be resolved quickly or slowly. We think the market-distortions may be prolonged by under-appreciated technology challenges.

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Opportunities amidst the Challenge?

So if the market-distortions of IMO 2020 have longevity, who will stand to benefit? We are maintaining a data-file of the ‘Top Technologies for IMO 2020’ around the industry, which give specific companies an edge. The data file now contains over 25 technologies across 7 Majors.


References

Al-Shahrani, F., Koseoglu, O. R. & Bourane, A. (2018). Integrated System and Process for In-Situ Organic Peroxide Production and Oxidative HeteroAtom Conversion. Saudi Aramco Patent.

Koseoglu, O. R., (2018). Integrated Isomerisation and Hydrotreating Process. Saudi Aramco Patent CN107529542

Hanks, P. (2018). Trim Alkali Metal Desulfurisation of Refinery Fractiions. ExxonMobil Patent US2018171238 

Our Top Technologies for IMO 2020

So far we have reviewed 400 patents in the downstream oil and gas industry (ex-chemicals). A rare few prompted an excited thought — “that could be really useful when IMO 2020 comes around”.

Specifically, from January 2020, marine fuel standards will tighten, cutting the maximum sulphur content from 3.5% to 0.5%. It will reduce the value of high-sulphur fuel oil, and increase the value of low-sulphur diesel.

This note summarises the top dozen proprietary technologies we have seen to capitalise on the shift, summarised by company (chart below).

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Turn the Plastic Back into Oil

Due to the limitations of mechanical recycling, 85% of the world’s plastic is incinerated, dumped into landfill, or worst of all, ends up in the oceans. An alternative, plastic pyrolysis, is on the cusp of commercialisation. We have assessed twenty technology solutions. Excitingly, this nascent opportunity can turn plastic back into oil, generate >30% IRRs on investment, and could displace 15Mbpd of future oil demand.

These are the conclusions of our new, 16-page report…


We have diligenced 20 companies (above), operating 100 pyrolysis facilities globally. Our work included two site-visits and multiple patent reviews. Three early-stage companies hold particular promise. You can download our technology-screen here.

Larger companies (BASF, OMV, BP, TOTAL and Exxon) are also waiting in the wings, to scale up in this space. Their own patents and progress are reviewed in the note.

Economics will be strong, and should surpass 30% in our base case, modelled here. With another c25% deflation, it could become economical to deploy the technology in removing plastic from the ocean.

9Mbpd of oil and condensate are currently consumed for chemicals, as broken down here. Even as plastic demand trebles by 2050, plastic-recycling could eliminate any net demand growth for oil; or even halve it, as modelled here.