September 2018

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Associations: Taking on the challenges facing the fuels and petrochemicals industries

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is made up of more than 60,000 members from more than 110 countries.

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is made up of more than 60,000 members from more than 110 countries. The association’s vision is to provide value as the global leader of the chemical engineering profession, as a lifetime center for professional and personal growth and the security of chemical engineers, and as a catalyst for applying chemical engineering expertise to meet societal needs.

Within AIChE lies the Fuels and Petrochemicals Division (F&PD). The F&PD is dedicated to taking on the present and future challenges and applications in the fields of fuels and petrochemicals through the collaboration of industry, academia and government agencies. During the association’s Spring Meeting, many challenges facing chemical engineering and F&PD industries were reviewed. The following provides an overview of some of the main topics discussed during the Spring Meeting, and how industry professionals are responding to these critical issues.

Safety

One of, if not the most, critical aspect of the downstream processing industry is safety. This topic was addressed across multiple portions of the conference, including in several executive keynote addresses (Mark Verganano, CEO and President, Chemours; Micheal Graff, CEO and President, Air Liquide; and Jun Mutoh, Representative Director and Executive Vice President, JXTG Holdings).

Mr. Verganano stated that at Chemours, one of their corporate tenants is an obsession with safety. It is of utmost importance that each person can safely go home to their families each day.

The challenge of continuously improving safety was the focus of Michael Graff’s keynote address for the Global Congress on Process Safety. Mr. Graff emphasized the connections his company is making between sustainability and safety. All new employees are trained to be actively engaged and take ownership in safety issues. The company is also investing nearly 60% of its R&D budget toward developments that specifically address human and environmental health.

Jun Mutoh further elaborated on improving safety cultures, including the role that management must play in developing a solid safety culture in an organization. He reinforced the paradigm shift in which companies go beyond compliance—considered an absolute minimum level of performance—to make additional commitments to improve safety, sustainability and environmental impact, even when not required by legislation or regulatory requirements.

Speed to market

Mr. Verganano showed how Chemours is using the concepts of collective entrepreneurship and refreshing simplicity. Collective entrepreneurship is achieved by empowering all employees to implement new ideas. Any person that provides an idea becomes a champion to implement that change using the necessary resources.

Refreshing simplicity is achieved by flattening all decision rights to a designated decision-maker. This means that delegating decisions to a supervisor is not allowed. In Chemours’ experience, this allows for quicker implementation and nurtures bold ideas.

Industry 4.0

The fuels and petrochemicals industries are heavily focused on manufacturing. An Industry 4.0 panel discussed using cyber-physical systems to produce breakthrough improvements in manufacturing productivity, safety and competitiveness. New manufacturing paradigms are driven by emerging technologies, including big data analytics, robotics, augmented reality, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), digitalization, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

One of the panelists, Dr. Robert Investor, Director of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, reinforced the idea that industrial manufacturing is becoming more technology driven. While new chemical engineers have embraced smart technologies, recruiting new engineers to work in a manufacturing environment is an immense challenge. However, technical developments have more closely connected the physical and digital worlds, which is resulting in manufacturing becoming more sustainable and safer.

In addition, recruiting new engineers in traditional segments of the fuels and petrochemicals industries remains a challenge, especially after the 2016 downturn in energy prices that drove many experienced industry professionals to retire.

Capital expenditures

The F&PD technical program featured an executive panel session that discussed the magnitude of energy projects under development in North America (NA) due to the increase in shale oil and natural gas production. Panelists included Paul Durand, ExxonMobil; Sanjeev Kapur, Apex Petro Consultants; and Lee Nichols, Hydrocarbon Processing. The panelists discussed macro-trends of all NA projects, with deeper reviews on the petrochemical and LNG industries.

The surge in capital investments in NA is a direct result of increased shale oil and gas production. The expansion of petrochemical capacity in the US was hard to fathom 10 yr ago. However, with cheap, readily available natural gas feedstock, the US is witnessing a renaissance in its petrochemical sector. By 2020, the US will start more than 10 MMtpy of new ethylene production capacity, as well as millions of tpy of derivatives, methanol, ammonia/urea and specialty chemicals production capacity.

The same is happening in NA’s LNG industry. The US will become one of the top three LNG-exporting nations by the end of the decade. By the early- to mid-2020s, the US could even challenge Australia and Qatar as the top LNG-exporting nation.

The panelists noted that it is a great time to be in the industry with new, capital-intensive energy projects continuing in the 2020s. These projects will require a strong pool of talented engineers and operating staff to develop, design and operate these investments.

Looking forward

The F&PD will continue to address new societal and industrial challenges. At the association’s upcoming annual meeting, the F&PD is co-sponsoring a plenary session with AIChE’s Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Institute. RAPID is exploring breakthrough technologies to boost energy productivity and energy efficiency through manufacturing processes, which include oil, gas and chemical manufacturers. F&PD applications in RAPID include chemicals and commodity processing, natural gas upgrading and renewable bioproducts.

The annual meeting will also feature a session on the IIoT. The IIoT is changing the way operations, engineering and maintenance personnel conduct their work. The increase of digital operations is providing companies with a faster approach to safer and more efficient operations.

World energy demand continues to increase

Sustainability converging with increased energy demand, while minimizing the impact to the environment, represents an immense dual challenge that the downstream processing industry is beginning to embrace. The F&PD is focused on being at the forefront of this changing landscape, as well as bringing together industry professionals to solve the industry’s toughest challenges. HP

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