• Navigating the Future of the Petroleum Sector at PEFTEC 2022

Fuel for Thought

Navigating the Future of the Petroleum Sector at PEFTEC 2022

Jul 17 2022

It’s an interesting time for the petrochemical sector, a sort of fresh start. With radical change necessitated by the climate crisis, many of the old habits have become redundant, but they’re yet to be replaced. For the first time since its inception, the industry confronts a future of uncharted territory. 

At this year’s Petroleum and Refining Technologies Conference (PEFTEC), this uncertainty met with an enthusiasm for the new shapes that the sector might take. Over two days, an international audience from over 90 countries packed PEFTEC’s conference halls to hear some of the community’s latest ideas. 

Plastics Recycling 

For the petrochemical sector, addressing the climate crisis will require plastics recycling – but that’s an open-field for development, at the moment. Plenty of presentations focussed on the challenges and prospects of plastics recycling, from all angles.  

For instance, Dr. Lukas Friederici from the University of Rostock discussed the need for efficient recycling strategies in order to leverage resources for the circular economy – a concept on which much of the petroleum industry has pinned its hopes. For many years, experts and regulators have been discouraging the highly-pollutive technique of waste incineration for managing plastic waste. For Dr. Friederici’s money, the waste sector needs to be focussing on the development of pyrolysis processes – and Dr. Friederici has a specific idea as to what needs to happen. 

In the 21st century, high-performance materials, like tailored polymers, composites and fibres, are of crucial importance. These materials are ubiquitous, they can be found in almost all of the products that we all use every day. Unfortunately, though, waste management has yet been unable to sufficiently pyrolyse these materials. That’s why Dr. Friederici spent his talk at PEFTEC 2022 advocating for the hyphenation to advanced mass spectrometric techniques, in particular for various polyethene-based construction materials. 

In a similar vein, Alex Hodgson of VUV Analytics takes the view that, although plastic waste is rightly recognised as a significant environmental challenge, it’s also a significant opportunity – indeed, it may be the industry’s only escape-route out of the current crisis. In contrast to Dr. Friederici’s emphasis, Mr. Hodgson takes up the question of analysing the products of pyrolysis, which has proven difficult. For Mr. Hogson, the solution might be vacuum ultra-violet spectrometry, insofar as it is paired with gas chromatography. Indeed, his presentation details an automated application, investigating its ability to provide accurate identification and PIONA-type quantification of pyrolysis products over a broad range of carbon numbers. 

Analysing New Fuels 

Although the recycling of plastics remains a controversial yet necessary discussion, it will probably take second priority to the analysis of new fuels, which only becomes more important as the world struggles to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and conventional renewables. In recognition of this, Professor Jean-François Focant kick-started two days of talks with a presentation on the use of two-dimensional gas chromatography in combination with time-of-flight mass spectrometry to support the transition from fossil-based to bio-based energy. 

Many plastic pyrolysis oils – a product of plastics recycling – contain a multitude of unwanted compounds, like nitrogen-containing species which can act as catalyst poisons during refining and fractionation. In order to remove them, you’ll need to identify them, of course. So, what does Professor Focant suggest? 

Well, there’re two steps: structural characterisation followed by semi-quantification. The first step itself has two steps, though, an electro-spray ionisation coupled with Fourier-transform mass spectrometry, and then a process of tandem mass spectrometry with high-resolution mass isolation and infrared multiphoton-dissociation fragmentation. For the next step, semi-quantification is achieved via standard addition. Fortunately, the amount of nitrogen detected in these two steps was consisted with the bulk analysis, and this accuracy can be duplicated for many other families of compounds within similarly complex matrices.  

Another pyrolysis oil can be derived from biomass, the analysis of which has proven similarly difficult. As, often, conventional methods fail to provide comprehensive, accurate results, Dr. Max Jennerwein of ASG explored the suitability of hyphenating two-dimensional gas chromatography to VUV spectroscopy, flame-ionisation, and mass spectrometry – all of which have their advantages and disadvantages. But, as Dr. Jennerwein concludes, there’s still a long way to go in understanding how to get the most out of biomass-derived samples. 


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