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Getting More out of Crude

An improved catalyst could help oil refineries get more gasoline out of a barrel of crude petroleum.
July 10, 2009

In an effort to make gasoline production cleaner and more efficient, Rive Technology of Cambridge, MA, is developing a catalyst that can help turn a greater percentage of crude petroleum into gasoline and other usable products. The company, which is testing the catalyst in its pilot plant in South Brunswick, NJ, believes that the technology will be able to process lower-grade fossil fuels and reduce the amount of energy that goes into the refining process.

Holey catalyst: Rive Technology is designing a zeolite catalyst with pores larger than those found in conventional zeolites, which are widely used in petroleum and petrochemical production. The larger pores allow the catalysts to handle a wide range of compounds.

Andrew Dougherty, vice president of operations at Rive, says that the catalyst could increase the proportion of petroleum processed by as much as 7 to 9 percent. “We’re going to need liquid, fossil-fuel-based transportation fuels for the foreseeable future,” he says. “We help make the production of those fuels much more efficient.”

The company’s technology is based on zeolites–tiny pore-studded particles made of a mix of aluminum, oxygen, and silicon that are a mainstay of the petroleum and petrochemical industries. Heated and mixed in with crude petroleum, zeolites act as a catalyst, breaking apart the complex hydrocarbon molecules of crude into simpler hydrocarbons that make gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and other desirable products in the process known as fluid catalytic cracking. By making zeolites with pores larger than those in conventional ones, Rive hopes to create catalysts that handle a higher proportion of hydrocarbons.

Typically, the openings of pores in zeolites are less than a nanometer wide, which limits the range of hydrocarbon that can get into the porous catalysts. But Javier Garcia Martinez, a cofounder of Rive and now a professor at the University of Alicante, in Spain, came up with a way to control the size of the openings while working as a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Nanostructured Materials Research Laboratory. He mixes the constituents of the zeolites in an alkaline solution, then adds a surfactant–a soaplike liquid. The surfactant makes bubbles, and the zeolites form around the bubbles. Then he burns away the surfactant, leaving behind zeolites with openings two to five nanometers wide–big enough to let in larger hydrocarbon molecules. By varying the chemistry of the surfactant, Garcia Martinez can control the size of the pore openings.

Part of improving the yield will be a result of perfecting the catalyst, which must be mixed with clay and other inert materials and spray-dried to create microspheres about 0.10 millimeters in diameter. The pilot plant is testing different combinations of materials to get the best properties. “By the end of the year, we hope to have hit upon the optimum mix of these things,” says Dougherty. “We hope to be in commercial refineries in the second half of 2011.” The plan is to license the recipe to commercial manufacturers of petroleum catalysts, such as BASF or W.R. Grace.

Dougherty also sees Rive’s zeolites being used in hydrocracking, a refining technique that employs high-pressure hydrogen to create a low-sulfur diesel. Hydrocracking is a small market, but with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency trying to reduce sulfur emissions, it’s a growing one, he says. With its ability to choose pore size, the company might also make catalysts for processing tar sands, which contain extremely dense petroleum. Further down the road, the material might also be used to process biofuels, according to the company. .

Rive, which licenses the technology from MIT, is operating on $22 million of venture financing, which should carry it into 2010. “The economy hasn’t been a big factor for us, and we don’t expect it to be as long as the fund-raising markets come back by next year,” Dougherty says.

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