Insights from Shell Rheinland’s transition to net zero

Key insights and important lessons for refiners as they look to address their CO2 emissions and determine their decarbonisation plans.

Jörg Dehmel
Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rheinland

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Article Summary

When a refiner is defining its decarbonisation plans, it is likely to face a daunting realisation: of all the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for which it is responsible, only a minority are from the site’s operations. A majority come from the use of those products by the end customer, for example, for mobility or heating. A refiner can only address those emissions by transforming its entire asset.

In my role as transformation manager at Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rheinland – the former Rheinland refinery – I have first-hand experience of the size of this challenge, and I would like to share some insights that could help others on their energy transition journeys.

There are no quick wins. You must change your feeds: move away from crude oil towards renewable and circular sources such as solar and wind energy, plastic waste and biomass. And you must change your product portfolio: your diversified product slate will likely need to include renewable-energy-derived hydrogen, biofuels, and sustainable aviation fuel, for example. But it can be done, and two of the keys are integration and collaboration.

Shell Rheinland today
Change is happening quickly at Rheinland, and observers are often surprised at the progress we have made already.

For example, we have been providing green hydrogen since 2021 when, together with our partners, we built Europe’s largest electrolyser, Refhyne I (see Figure 1). This converts solar and offshore wind energy into green hydrogen, which is helping hard-to-abate industries, such as road freight and heavy industry, to decarbonise. This is only the first step, however, and Refhyne II, when it goes ahead, will expand the electrolyser’s capacity from 10 to 100 MW. We are also evaluating projects that envision this hydrogen being used to refine biofuels.

We are also providing biofuels. In 2019, we began co-processing vegetable oils alongside conventional crude oil feeds in an existing hydrotreater. One of the interesting things here is that this can produce renewable diesel, renewable kerosene, and also renewable naphtha, which can be used to make biochemicals, so all the key markets can be served.

However, the amount of renewable feedstock that can be used in co-processing is limited to about 10%, so we are developing plans to move to 100% renewable feedstocks such as used cooking oil, waste animal fat, and other industrial and agricultural residual products. This will involve building a dedicated biofuels unit that will be similar to the 820,000 t/y hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids unit currently under construction at Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It will be one of Europe’s largest biofuels facilities (Shell 2021a) and is based on the Shell Renewable Refining Process and Shell Renewable Catalysts, both of which are available from Shell Catalysts & Technologies.

Crucially, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) could be more than 75% of the over 800,000 t/y capacity of our biofuels unit’s output, with the rest being renewable diesel and renewable naphtha. SAF currently accounts for only about 0.1% of global aviation fuel, and Shell’s investment will help increase this, which is vital if aviation is to cut its carbon emissions.

BioLNG – liquefied natural gas (LNG) from organic waste such as manure, agricultural waste, food scraps, and expired food products – is another low-carbon product that the site will soon add to its product portfolio. We started building a bioLNG production facility at Rheinland in early 2022, and we expect this to be operational in 2023 and to save up to 1 Mt/y of CO2 emissions from road transport.

Two factors make bioLNG particularly interesting. First, it can be used in existing LNG engines and filling stations without any need for modifications, which means it offers an important short-term step towards cleaner road transport. Second, it is ideal for heavy-duty road transport, for which electrification is a major challenge, so it offers a solution as a transition fuel.

Another vitally important project at Rheinland relates to the production of sustainable chemicals from plastic waste. Shell has an ambition to process 1 Mt/y of plastic waste in its global chemicals plants by 2025 and is already processing hard-to-recycle plastics at its Norco (USA) and Moerdijk (the Netherlands) sites. Next year, after we have revamped the steam cracker, Rheinland will also have this capability.

Of course, you also need the pyrolysis oil, and for this  Shell has invested in BlueAlp and its technology, which transforms hard-to-recycle plastic waste into pyrolysis oil (Shell 2021b). Together, Shell and BlueAlp are building units that will convert more than 30,000 t/y of hard-to-recycle plastic waste into pyrolysis oil that will feed Rheinland’s revamped steam cracker, and the one at Moerdijk.

Shell Catalysts & Technologies is developing Shell Recovered Plastics Upgrader technology based on its catalytic technology to upgrade the pyrolysis oil. Its unique pre-treatment technology removes or reduces contamination within the pyrolysis oil, enabling a wider range of feeds to be used, including opportunity feeds with higher levels of chlorine and metals. It is capable of processing a wide range of feeds with varying exotherms and reduces the need for expensive recovered plastics sorting.

Although the projects mentioned above will help to reduce the emissions that come from our customers’ use of our products, they will not address the remaining emissions that come from our operations. For those, we are continuing to implement energy-efficiency improvements and are also exploring carbon capture and storage (CCS) opportunities.

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