Joana Frontela: “Cepsa is firmly committing to innovation as a technological lever to growth”

Head of the Cepsa Research Center, Joana Frontela

By Juan Emilio Ballesteros


Who is she?

As the Head of the Cepsa Research Center, Joana Frontela has contributed to consolidating the company’s commitment to research and vocation to innovate, while aware of the need to integrate excellence and academic qualification with a business strategy in order to implement increasingly efficient technologies. In its position as technology promoter, the Research Center takes on projects aimed at developing new products for all the company’s business areas and invests on projects intended to develop sustainable and advanced products in accordance with social and environmental demands.

Some of the recent activities developed at Cepsa Research Center have brought about improvements to both the company’s productive processes and the development of new fuels based on agricultural components, with a lesser impact when it comes to contributing to reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The center’s projects go across the entire hydrocarbon chain of value: exploration and production, refining, transport and commercialization of petroleum and natural gas derivatives, biofuels, cogeneration, and electricity trade. The company has developed an important petrochemical area, highly interlinked with oil refining, where it manufactures and sales raw materials to elaborate high added value products that are mainly used for next-generation plastic and biodegradable detergents.

The Cepsa Research Center was founded in 1975. Initially, it was located in Torrejón de Ardoz and it focused on biology (fermentation, biotechnology, etc.), through which the company sought to utilize light currents in refineries for biological processes.

In the mid-1980’s, the center’s activity was redirected to focus on Cepsa’s main business: petrochemistry and refining. This led to the creation of a new area, nowadays well-established, for the evaluation and development of new technologies aimed at producing fuels, lubricants, asphalt, chemical products for petrochemistry, etc. To that end, Cepsa invested in providing its pilot plants (it has over 50) with state-of-the-art machinery and analytical equipment.

In 2008, the Research Center was relocated to Alcalá de Henares, which coincided with the addition of the main R+D activities from the petrochemical centers and the development of an Exploration and Production area.

How much does innovation determine competitiveness?

The sustainability principles that all productive sectors must comply with nowadays make industries optimize their processes and minimize their impact (minimize waste and sub-products, for example). Companies in the chemistry sector undertake rigorous competitiveness tests from consumers and the market on a daily basis, both in terms of their products’ quality and their sustainability, environmental protection, and safety.

The companies regarded as competitive in today’s scene are those that rapidly evolve in the face of restrictions or legislative pressure in order to maintain competitiveness levels both nationwide and internationally. This approach, which should guide the actions taken by any company in the industrial sector, is enhanced in the chemical sector, where it faces specific challenges such as growing in the midst of intense competition while submitted to very strict norms. Moreover, these challenges become even more relevant in today’s world, given the general drop of economic activities seen over the past years, and the need to face its effects. Faced with this reality, the only option seems to be making a firm commitment to innovation and cutting-edge technology that enable companies to confront the new economic situation. Cepsa is firmly committing to innovation as a technological lever to growth.

How can we move forward in the development of fuels that lower GHG emissions?

There are multiple factors that determine GHG emissions (mainly CO2): the renewable nature of the fuel, its efficiency (measured as CO2 emitted by km), carbon intensity (CO2 emitted by kcal supplied) and the fuel’s energy density (kcal/ kg). We can focus on all these factors to reduce CO2 emissions.

At the Center, we work on different research areas aiming to obtain biofuels from renewable sources. Firstly, we obtained biofuels utilizing Hydroconversion of Triglycerides – a process tested during an experimental pilot – and afterward, we moved forward to its industrial implementation at the Huelva and San Roque refineries. Furthermore, we have ongoing projects focused on the development of advanced biofuels from non-food raw materials (biomass). One of the projects developed uses algae to obtain biodiesel or lignocellulosic biomass from forestry. The center has researched on the transformation and chemical processes needed to efficiently process this raw material and proposing a viable method at an industrial scale.

In addition to the biofuels area, Cepsa’s Research Center is also working on developing more efficient fossil fuels, as well as improving their quality (high octane premium gasoline, optimizing the formulas and selecting better additives) so as to allow drivers to cover larger distances maintaining the same fuel consumption and thus reduce vehicles’ CO2 emissions per kilometer.

Your centers favor research that focuses on more efficient oil extraction through EOR. What is that and which advances have resulted from it?

Petroleum, which is trapped inside the rocks in a reservoir, is usually produced by means of the pressure created by the fluids or the one generated by injecting water and gas into the rock. These conventional techniques allow extracting just 20 to 40 percent of the petroleum contained in a reservoir. Consequently, Cepsa is now committing to Enhanced Oil Recovery Techniques (EOR) that enable to produce up to 20 percent more crude.

The company operates in several countries with different types of fields where production may be limited by different factors; hence, the need for different technologies for each type of field.

Between 2009 and 2011, the Center developed foam technology for the Algerian fields. This technology uses foam to reduce the mobility of the gas injected into the rock to improve oil recovery and thus increase production; this project was successfully concluded after selecting and testing surfactants that could create a stable foam under high temperatures and salinity with the presence of miscible gas.

As part of an R+D program carried out between 2011 and 2016, Cepsa has developed Enhanced Oil Recovery technology that uses a combination of polyacrylamide and a surfactant manufactured by its Chemistry division. This project was successfully implemented during a pilot test performed in the Caracara field (Colombia), obtaining a 16-percent increase in the area’s recovery factor as a result. Despite the drop in oil prices, Cepsa continues to commit to EOR technology and has focused on new developments since 2015. In the case of the fields in Algeria, we are studying alternate injection of water and gas, which consists on improving the combined effect of better mobility, due to gas, and a better sweep, thanks to the water. We are also seeing the effects of using low-salinity water, which is a research based on optimizing the composition of the water used for EOR in order to reduce the interaction between the crude and the rock and obtaining higher recovery levels.

Another ongoing R+D project is developing surfactants aimed at high-salinity and high-temperature fields. These conditions, which constitute a challenge for most products, are present in most Middle Eastern fields, and thus the technology has major potential.

Cepsa has developed the best technology available for LAB production. What is this and what improvements does it provide compared to the previous technologies?

Sulphonated alkylbenzene (LAS) is the widest used synthetic detergent component and Cepsa is its top producer worldwide. Traditionally, LAB (linear alkyl benzene) production was managed by using either hydrofluoric acid (HF) or aluminum trichloride (A1C13), with considerable operational and management challenges. A landmark conquered by the company was DETAL Technology (DetalTM fixed-bed alkylation process) a pioneer in the sector and developed with the help of Universal Oil Products (UOP). As of the 1990’s, this Spanish know how substituted the traditional process in the detergent industry and was exported across the world. Since then, 80 percent of all new capacity is based on this technology.

The new technology has the advantage of being a safer process, with lesser sub product production, and more profitable from an economic standpoint. This process of continuous improvements is far from over. Cepsa and UOP are actively working on a long-term research project aimed at fixed-bed alkylation.

You are testing new processes aimed at better utilizing the glycerin and acetone derived from biodiesel and phenic acid production. What is SOLKETAL, the result of the lab work carried out at the University of Seville? Is it really cleaner and more powerful?

Biodiesel and phenic acid production generate two coproducts: glycerin and acetone. Through R+D, Cepsa is seeking for ways to increase their added value. The Research Center is studying ways to revalue these products by forming an acetal (named SOLKETAL) to use as an additive in diesel fuels. The project was developed in collaboration with BIOOILS and the University of Seville, which performed behavioral tests on a diesel engine.

Synthesized acetal is regarded as having a biological origin, as it originates from glycerin, which in turn comes from vegetable oils. This compound presents good qualities, especially for lubrication, and can, therefore, be used to produce automotive diesel fuel. The motor tests conducted at the University of Seville found no significant differences with conventional diesel with regards to consumption and emissions.

This project has managed to combine the bio and mineral worlds to obtain a compound that can be added to conventional diesel and contributes to the long sought-after circular economy in fuels.

How could we revalue oil refining products? Could you explain the work developed at the University of Cadiz in this regard?

Future energy supply is a clear concern in our present-day society. Research efforts are focusing on optimizing current oil-related processes and developing new technologies that enable to replace mineral-based energy with other renewable sources. Nevertheless, most of the energy consumed by the transportation sector nowadays continues to be provided by non-renewable oil. Therefore, refining and petrochemical industries, such as Cepsa, are continuously forced to adapt our operation schemes to the current needs in the most efficient manner.

An interesting approach in order to overcome this problem could be, for instance, revaluating different currents in our refineries. In oil refining, the revaluation processes are those in which a determined product can be the base to obtain another, revalued, product. Consequently, the objective of alkylating aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins derived from FCC petrol (fluidized catalytic cracking process or hydrocracking) is to obtain clean fuels, specifically diesel/kerosene, that adapt to increasingly demanding legislation. This project is part of a collaboration agreement between Cepsa and the University of Cadiz, with regards to research staff contracting, and with participation from the EIDEMAR International Doctoral School in Sea Studies. This project helped develop the Cepsa/UCA Industrial Ph.D. Thesis “FCC Petrol Current Revaluation”. The Research Center’s strategy to achieve these targets is based on the design, synthesis, and evaluation of catalysts – highly selective and stable – that allow carrying out the process in the most sustainable manner that we can.

What can chemistry provide as a smart solution for the future of people and the planet?

The short answer is that chemistry provides solutions. It is a discipline that has done nothing but improve our daily lives. We cannot overlook discoveries so significant and necessary as medicine, water treatment, and purification systems, pesticides, fuels, etc. Therefore, chemistry and innovative projects will be the tool to move forward and overcome obstacles and situations, allowing us to continue to evolve as a society. Advances in chemistry must take care to improve fuels, petrochemistry, pharmaceuticals, materials, among others. By doing this, it will continue to improve all of our lives.

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