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SwRI expands fuel processing capabilities with new large-scale reactor

May 12, 2020 — Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has expanded its capacity to develop and certify fuels from alternative sources with a new, custom fixed-bed reactor. The SwRI-designed system can be used for refinery processes, such as hydrotreating and hydrocracking, to produce a stable fuel ready for vehicle use.

Hydrotreating is an established refinery process for reducing sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen and olefins in fuel and lubricant products. Refineries use hydrocracking to adjust the properties and boiling point ranges of crude oil fractions into products such as gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and diesel. SwRI develops hydrotreating and hydrocracking pilot plants to address new low-sulfur emission regulations (IMO 2020 and Tier 3), fuel specifications (Title 40 Part 79) and ever-changing feedstocks [shale oil, Fisher-Tropsh (FT) waxes]. The SwRI-designed system can be used for both hydrotreating and hydrocracking to create stable fuels ready for vehicle use.

“Developing reliable biofuels can help reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels,” said Eloy Flores III, assistant director of SwRI’s Chemical Engineering Department. “SwRI is a leader in developing fuels from unconventional sources, producing biofuels that meet Environmental Protection Agency certification (Title 40 Part 79). The Institute also is home to one of the few laboratories in the United States to register alternative fuels for integration into the mainstream vehicle fuel supply.”

Alternative or biofuels are developed by converting raw materials such as corn, algae, plastics, wood or even heavy crude oil into refined fuel. SwRI’s new reactor includes a large reactor bed and two additional smaller units to develop processes to produce fuel samples. The pilot system can process and produce up to two drums of specification fuels per day, operating at up to 3,500 psig and 550 degrees Celsius. The large reactor has a 24-liter catalyst capacity, 7-liter capacity guard bed and a 3-liter capacity preheater. The adjoining two smaller units have 0.2-liter and 7-liter catalyst volume capacities. The new reactors use existing upstream and downstream equipment for distillation and recycling.

“Combining the large reactor bed with smaller units allows us to handle various feed materials ranging from FT waxes to naphtha,” Flores said. “We help our clients take an unconventional feedstock, such as pyrolysis oils, and produce biofuel blends that can be used in cars, buses, trucks and jets. We can also verify and scale-up specification fuel production using conventional commercial hydrotreating/hydrocracking catalysts. Our goal is to provide more efficient scale-up and proof-of-concept techniques for processing fuels and other chemical products for our clients.”

SwRI’s new reactor and pilot unit are part of its Alternative Fuel Center, which produced one of the world’s first coal-derived gasolines as well as fuels developed from renewable sources such as chicken fat and unconventional oils such as shale. SwRI has processed and produced fuels for more than 35 years.

“We develop and evaluate different catalysts and processes to test new chemistries, validate impacts to commercial operations and reduce oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen. We can also modify the properties of fuels or refinery and natural gas byproducts produced from conventional and unconventional feedstocks,” Flores said.

For more information about SwRI’s fixed-bed reactors, visit Process Engineering & Fuels or contact Tracey M.S. Whelan, +1 210 522 2256, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.