Quantiam Technologies designs nanoscale solutions for big problems.
By Tyler Irving
When Steve Petrone finished his PhD at McMaster University in 1988, nobody was talking about nanotechnology. But the surface chemist could see that big industrial problems like the carbon fouling that impairs the function of petrochemical furnaces could be solved by carefully controlling only a few atomic layers of material. In 1998, Petrone founded Quantiam Technologies Inc. to develop a line of specialized catalytic coatings for furnace tubes. Today, the Edmonton-based company is poised to bring its groundbreaking solution to the world through partnerships with major global companies like NOVA Chemicals and BASF. ACCN spoke with Petrone about the journey from laboratory to market.
ACCN Can you give us some background on carbon-based fouling?
SP This is a problem any time hydrocarbons are processed at elevated temperatures but it’s especially severe in steam hydrocarbon pyrolysis, which is used to produce olefins like ethylene and propylene. Pyrolysis, or cracking, is carried out in furnaces that consist of an assembly of tubes that range from two to six inches in diameter, installed in a vessel three-to-five storeys tall. They are gas-fired on the outside to 1,100 C or 1,150 C.
The alloys used to make these tubes and fittings are primarily based on transition metals — generally iron, nickel and chromium — that give them their hightemperature operating capability. But various oxides formed of iron and nickel have unwanted catalytic functionality and convert the hydrocarbon feedstock into filamentous coke. This is essentially the growth of carbon nanotubes on the internal surfaces at very rapid rates, like cholesterol in one’s arteries. Because the carbon is a thermal insulator, you have to fire the outside of the tubes hotter and hotter to maintain critical temperature of the feedstream internally. You typically get anywhere from 10 to 40 days of operation before you have to shut it down and remove the carbon by oxidation.
There is a second type of carbon deposition that arises from the complex radical chain mechanism in the gas phase — it isn’t catalysed by the surface. This is called amorphous coke or gas-phase coke. In lighter feedstocks such as ethane and propane, the balance is typically 80 per cent filamentous and 20 per cent amorphous coke. At the other extreme, heavy feedstocks such as naphthas show the reverse: 20 filamentous and 80 per cent amorphous.
ACCN What can be done about this?
SP If you can control the outermost two or three atomic layers of these tubes so that there are no unwanted catalytic sites that form filamentous coke, you’ve eliminated that problem. Of course, amorphous coke deposition is not a surface reaction but it’s affected by filamentous deposition because the filaments act as collectors. In the 60 years prior to about 2002, industry spent about $1 billion on rendering the surfaces of these tubes inert, with limited success. No coating solution had ever survived more than six months.
ACCN What was your approach to this problem?
SP We asked ourselves what we had to do to get rid of amorphous coke. One clever way would be to turn it into gaseous species such as CO and CO. Oxygen is present in the H O from the steam, so we just needed an appropriate catalyst. But there had been no success in trying to incorporate gasification into this thermal process because the fouling rate was so extreme that catalysis made no sense.
In 2001, Quantiam Technologies and NOVA Chemicals sat down and defined 21 chemical, physical and thermo-mechanical properties that would need to be addressed in order to have a viable solution. From that, we tested 657 catalyst systems, of which six were believed to survive at the conditions inside the reactor. Nine years and $18 million later, we commercialized two of those six. One is a low-catalytic gasifier designed for lighter feedstocks where the amount of amorphous coke is relatively low, the second one is a high-catalytic gasifier designed for heavier feedstocks.
ACCN How did your early research influence your decision to found this company?
SP In the early 1990s, there was a company in Alberta called Sherritt Gordon that was essentially a nickel refinery with an advanced materials group. In partnership with the federal and provincial governments, they launched something called the WESTAIM Initiative, for Western Advanced Industrial Materials. They had about $180 million over five years — it was a significant effort in advanced materials for Canada. They went on a hiring spree and a few of the PhDs that they employed were Canadians. I was one of them.
We did about 60 projects, four or five of which were eventually commercialized. One of them was a technology that I led, rendering the surfaces of these tubes and fittings chemically inert. A change of management followed and I founded my own company in 1998.
ACCN Why did this particular problem appeal to you?
SP In this line of work, you’re always looking for industrial problems that have been around a long time and are of great commercial value, large enough that if you spent a fortune trying to find a solution, you could actually get a return on it. From a scientific perspective, it was obvious it could be done if you could only control a few atomic layers and make sure they survive for the full life cycle of five years.
ACCN How did the company evolve?
SP In the first three years we were primarily doing research. I hired every surface chemist that I could find in Canada, as well as some solid bulk materials folks. We provided consulting and analytical services for a number of years just to pay the bills, all the while pumping everything we could into developing new products, until we came together with NOVA Chemicals in 2001.
To align with the start of the NOVA project, we moved into a 14,000 square-foot facility in Pinnacle Industrial Park in Edmonton. We built our research facility and also a halfscale pilot plant. The minute we were able to coat a prototype tube, we went into a furnace. That was one of the big advantages of the project: in having a petrochemical company as a partner, we weren’t afraid to test things in the field. We did three furnace trials with NOVA Chemicals: the first in September 2006 and two more in 2008.
With the completion of the field trials and securing some investment capital from private equity and a strategic venture capital group, we built a full-scale 34,000 square-foot advanced manufacturing facility in the Edmonton Research Park and moved in last August. We have 22 employees and we’re still skewed toward PhDs. If you want to be on the leading edge, you’ve got to have the skill set.
ACCN What are the latest developments?
SP We installed our first European furnace in January 2010 and that’s still running quite nicely. We’re about to install a second one in the next couple of months and we’re talking about a third with that organization. Most significantly, we’ve now partnered with BASF of Germany to create a new company, BASF Qtech Inc. This company will focus on commercializing the advanced catalytic surface coatings that Quantiam has developed for use in the global petrochemical industry.
ACCN How economical is your product?
SP In the past, there were some solutions that merely made the alloy surface inert to filamentous coke formation and they were brought to market at up to three times the base cost of the tubes, which is mind-boggling. We developed a brandnew coating technology that layers the gasification capability on top of inertness to filamentous coke. At our current pricing model, payback is within six months on a lifetime of more than five years. So the business case for installation is pretty solid.
We charge between $3 and $10 per square inch for the coating. That range includes other products that we’ve introduced for wear and corrosion applications, not just the catalyst coatings for olefins. The global market for olefins is about $150 billion — again, one of the reasons we chose this space was potential return on investment.
ACCN What is the potential market for your technology?
SP There are approximately 1,500 furnaces globally. About 20 per cent, or 300 furnaces, are replaced every year. Our current launch capacity here is three million internal square inches — that’s our unit of sale — which works out to about six or seven furnaces. If you convert it over in terms of global olefins-producing capacity globally, that’s 0.8 per cent. On our current footprint, and with adding some additional equipment and staffing, we could double that to 1.6 per cent. Conceivably, on the current footprint of the site, we could double yet again, so we could at most serve 3.2 per cent of global olefins manufacturing capacity.
This scanning electron micrograph image shows the topmost surface of the the low-catalytic gasification coating designed by Quantiam Technologies as part of its catalyst-assisted manufacture of olefins (CAMOL) process.
ACCN How are you funded?
SP The National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program has always been with us at the front end. They can get a project started, but they can’t get you into the seven-figure range of research and development expenditures. Of the $18 million we needed to develop the technology, we received $3.5 million from Industry Canada through the Technology Partnerships Canada program, which no longer exists. We received $1.5 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The other $13 million was shared between NOVA and Quantiam, so it’s very much a private sector-funded project. That took us to the end of R&D.
After that, we raised $6 million from a private equity group in Toronto, Ursataur Capital Management, and BASF Venture Capital in Germany — half each. Another $2 million followed from that from our internal investors for a total of $8 million, which allowed us to build this first commercial facility.
ACCN What’s next for Quantiam?
SP You can’t be a one-trick pony. BASF owns what used to be Englehard Corporation, which is the world leader in catalysis. With that partnership we’ve greatly increased the effort to bring more catalysis into this thermal process. Because we now know how to make sure that it stays fouling-free, that opens up tremendous opportunity to redefine the entire space.
Quantiam on its own has a very strong pipeline of new products. We have wear and corrosion coatings also based on nanotechnology that have highly unique properties and are probably about two years from market. But the Holy Grail of the entire petrochemical industry is direct conversion of methane to a light olefin, so that you don’t have to use ethane, propane, or naphtha feedstocks. From the massive catalyst database and experience we’ve developed, we’re moving forward with catalysts that would be able to convert a single carbon molecule (methane) to C2, perhaps even C3, all of them very robust with high stability to sulphur and other process challenges.
ACCN After all these years, what still excites you about surface chemistry?
SP I can still refer to the experiment where, one Sunday afternoon after three years of work, it finally clicked. The discovery was that the surface composition generated on an alloy had little or nothing to do with the bulk. Yet we could measure it, probe it and exploit it. That simple observation, and the opportunity to define a surface with properties so unique and with so much commercial potential, is what drives me.
Photo Credit: Quantiam Technologies
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