RMI and Shell Explore the 'Stackless Refinery'

RMI and Shell Explore the 'Stackless Refinery'

If selling fuels to move vehicles that use 1% of their energy to move the driver, and then send all the resulting carbon dioxide out tailpipes, were a big chunk of your income, what do you think your number one business strategy would be? By Cameron M. Burns

The Four Pillars of Climate-Conscious Refining:
  • Carbonless energy carriers (notably hydrogen)
  • Carbon-containing-but-climate-safe biofuels (which mimic the carbon cycle that occurs in photosynthesis)
  • Carbon-containing fuels with offsets or sequestration
  • Carbon-efficient refineries (which need offsets or sequestration because they still emit carbon)
During a recent interview with Rocky Mountain Institute CEO Amory Lovins, I threw out the question, "Why is carbon dioxide so important and why should anyone care?" I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted Amory to state it -- you know, for the record.

He looked up for a moment, and then tilted his head as if he trying to decipher a muffled airport announcement. He held out his right hand, and then gently raised it through the air while pinching at invisible little objects. He was simply, he explained, grasping tiny imaginary price tags -- attached to the carbon atoms -- floating up and away on a warm exhaust.

"Every carbon dioxide molecule going up a smokestack costs you money, notably your fuel bill," he said. "If you figure out how to do its task without generating those waste carbon dioxide molecules, you save a lot of money." I knew waste was superfluous, but his visualization clinched it -- heck, I can easily picture those little price tags drifting away in the wind.

Now, think about those little price tags a moment and ponder, if you will, the mobility fuels business. If selling fuels to move vehicles that use 1% of their energy to move the driver, and then send all the resulting carbon dioxide out tailpipes, were a big chunk of your income, what do you think your number one business strategy would be?

In October 2001, Royal Dutch/Shell Group released a remarkable pair of long-term energy scenarios called "Dynamics as Usual" and "The Spirit of the Coming Age.” The latter describes society's coming shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to hydrogen, and it envisions the shift happening quickly: "By 2025, a quarter of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) vehicle fleet already use fuel cells," the scenario reads. "Less than a five percent increase in [natural] gas production is sufficient to meet demands. The global auto industry rapidly consolidates around the new platform…. By 2025 China -- with huge and growing vehicle use -- faces an unacceptable dependence on oil imports. Unease about the sustainability of regional gas resources and fears about the reliability of external gas suppliers push towards the use of indigenous coal. But this is becoming logistically and environmentally problematic .… Meanwhile the growing demand for gas and hydrogen is supported by -- and spurs -- advances in low cost and unobtrusive in-situ extraction of methane and hydrogen from coal and oil shales. Carbon dioxide sequestration is feasible and enhances productivity…."

Although they sound a bit like excerpts from an Arthur C. Clarke novel, the documents are solidly based in fact, and they are part of Shell's ongoing effort to figure out what our energy future looks like -- not only so the firm can remain profitable, but so it can also do what society wants (and thus, in turn, remain profitable). Most accepted forecasts for oil output have it dipping someplace around 2020 to 2050, and they don't -- not the credible forecasts, anyway -- have it coming back up, ever, so a gentle, graceful transition is pretty important.

In mid-February 2003, RMI and Shell Global Solutions combined talents to hold a joint "Innovation Laboratory" at a Shell refinery in Northern California. Such events are designed to challenge existing practices and generate ideas about the business. In this case, participants pondered the Refinery of the Future -- or as meeting chair Dr. Jan Verloop termed it, the Stackless Refinery. RMI consultants and staff members at the event included Kyle Datta, Catherine Greener, Jason Denner, Joel Swisher, Amory Lovins, and Sara Weiss.

"This was a hypothetical facility," noted Lovins. "Shell is interested in thinking through a future refinery that would make nothing but value -- no muda [Japanese for waste, purposelessness, or futility], nothing that nobody wants. Everything it made would be something useful you could sell. And it would probably accommodate not only crude oil feedstocks but also biomass feedstocks to produce a range of valuable products. 'Stackless' was specific shorthand for 'no carbon dioxide,' but it could go much further than that."

As I pointed out at the beginning of this story, if you focus on the carbon dioxide and follow the money, you might save not only the climate, but a few shekels as well.

There are numerous options for eliminating or reducing carbon dioxide, ranging from carbon-free fuels to providing access services in which the fewer gallons used, the more profit a company makes to deliver the service the customer wants (counterintuitive to say the least, but in reality what some smart businesspeople are doing). The workshop's lively discussion was framed by what Lovins calls the "Four Pillars of Climate-Conscious Refining": carbonless energy carriers (notably hydrogen); carbon-containing-but-climate-safe biofuels (which mimic the carbon cycle that occurs in photosynthesis); carbon-containing fuels with offsets or sequestration; and carbon-efficient refineries (which need offsets or sequestration because they still emit carbon). Of course, the Four Pillars represent a kind of smorgasbord and they can easily be mixed to taste (Lovins smacks his lips when he tells this part of the story), depending on the end-use technologies and social patterns using the refinery's output.

In more concrete terms, RMI and Shell experts brainstormed techie stuff like advanced energy efficiency and radically improved process technologies. Increasing the use of biomass as a refinery fuel or feedstock, sequestering carbon dioxide rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, and using low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and natural gas were also part of the mix.

Attendees also spent quite a bit of time in open conversation, swapping anecdotes on refinery design in general and how to improve it. In one of Shell's most efficient refineries at a Factor 4 workshop led by RMI two years ago, attendees found retrofit opportunities to save over two-fifths of the fuel at very attractive prices, while if designing a new facility from scratch, they estimated they could make a refinery "many, many" times more efficient.

"You could, for example, greatly improve the structure and function of controls," Lovins said. "One of the Shell experts from Europe told us that at another major oil company, the average molecule of refined product was being reboiled and recondensed an average of thirty-five times. Why? When the roast is done, you take it out of the oven. One can design refineries in a completely different way that minimizes wasteful superfluity."

Electrical loads for pumping could be far better designed at most refineries (think fat, short, straight pipes rather than skinny, long, crooked pipes), as could the reuse of waste heat. And some Shell and RMI experts think it's possible to design refineries with no stack gas, no waste, and no wastewater. All this bodes well for the Refinery of the Future, the so-called Stackless Refinery.

Although no hard and fast refinery diagrams were drawn up, Shell Global Solutions and RMI enjoyed drilling deep into the -- pardon the analogy here -- Gray Matter Formation to find rich ideas about cutting carbon dioxide, while providing the world's citizenry with mobility when it's necessary and freedom from the need for mobility where possible.

And one thing is for certain: next time you drive past a Shell refinery, you can be assured that those clever engineers are trying to cut the carbon dioxide molecules rising out the smokestacks -- those are, after all, attached to tiny, imaginary price tags. Now, there's a concept anyone can grasp.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Rocky Mountain Institute. Graphic by Ben Emerson.