Fuel for thought: how to meet the growing demands of industry

Paul Boughton
Research and development is the cornerstone of any fuel's development programme. Here, Vincent Tertois outlines how Shell is developing new formulations to meet the needs of industry and private customers.

Tailoring fuel to meet the needs of industry has been the task of Shell's Commercial Fuels division for more than a century and is responsible for all fuels sold to commercial customers worldwide, ranging from diesel fuels for road transport, to heavy fuel oil for industry, as well as heating fuel to private customers. The division is responsible for around one third of global Shell fuel sales, is active in some 55 countries, and provides transport, industrial and heating fuels to more than 250000 customers.

Where Commercial Fuels is concerned, developing high quality fuels is focused on three key areas. Technology is the main focus, then there is partnership - understanding what your customer needs and how to fulfill those needs - and finally delivery because you can make nice things, but you have to be able to deliver them on time and to where the customer needs them.

R&D is the cornerstone of any fuels development programme, used not only to evaluate and validate formulations, but to bring about cost reductions and address technical barriers. Shell's R&D programme is comparable to a funnel system. Starting from the basic ideas of things that could work, down to formulations we are developing and making real. We continuously populate this funnel to ensure we have innovative products in the marketplace, off the shelf products ready to use, fresh innovations being introduced, or formulations for the future.

However, we are not in the mass production business and we do not introduce fuels every day or every month. Once a fuel is introduced, we work in cycles refreshing the formulation approximately every three years.

The fuels development process begins in the laboratory where our scientists take advantage of state-of-the-art modelling programmes to test different formulations. With legislation driving low carbon fuel standards, particularly for renewable fuel components, like biofuels, computer simulations can play a critical role in ensuring the physical fuel and chemical properties of our fuels meet the national specifications of different countries.

In addition to simulation, sophisticated bench tests examine how fuels perform in the engine or in the boiler. For example, the way a diesel engine performs depends on the proper operation of the fuel injectors, so deposit control from diesel fuel is crucial to maximise performance as well as fuel economy. The bench test allows us to distinguish and test the fuel economy performance of different blends by assessing how the build up of deposits can occur on the fuel injector. In very extreme conditions we can predict the lifetime of an engine in just 60 hours.

Shell has more than 200 scientists worldwide working on fuels development, including a product centre in Chester in the UK, and R&D centres in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Houston (Texas), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and a research centre being built in Bangalore (India). Once we are satisfied with the compatibility of our product in the engine, we test it under real life conditions. This is critically important, firstly, to identify there is nothing wrong, and secondly, to generate real benefits for the customer before a product goes to market. The nature of real life demonstrations varies depending on the fuel and the industry.

In transport, Shell regularly runs 3-6 month field tests with Commercial Road Transport customers. Findings are widely publicised, not least in successive studies published by the society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Trials normally involve matched pairs of trucks from operators with 20+ strong fleets. For example, we ran a five-month trial in Austria with paper wholesaler, Europapier. The trial involved five matched pairs of trucks from the company's 25-strong fleet. One vehicle from each pair ran on standard diesel while the other used New Shell Diesel (diesel with a fuel economy formula). Results were measured through on-board equipment and a strict refuelling routine used to determine fuel economy performance. This particular trial showed an average of 5.2 per cent fuel economy improvement in the trucks running on the New Shell Diesel.

Shell has also constructed a dual-fuel truck and divided the fuel injection system of a V6 diesel engine into two halves, supplied from two fuel tanks. This is where the science gets really clever. The whole engine can operate from either tank, or each half of the engine can be supplied with a different fuel. This is the first vehicle of its kind, and allows us to compare two fuels in a single vehicle - in the same engine - but with the same driver, under identical driving conditions.

With industry under increased pressure to meet challenging emissions limits in urban areas aimed at improving local air quality, where is Vincent seeing increased demand for fuel innovation?

We are addressing the needs for heavy fuel oil for industry or power applications in rapidly industrialised regions like Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and in countries India, China. We have launched a heavy fuel oil in South China, called Fuel Oil X-tra (FOX) which helps the customer decrease the particulate emissions from industrial boilers. With industry under greater scrutiny to switch to cleaner forms of energy, fuel innovations like FOX, will help businesses to meet tough emissions limits, and avoid paying penalties for exceeding them.

The majority of Shell's current and future commercial fuels demand in the are in the fuel efficiency area. We are seeing an increase in demand for all transport fuel across Europe and developing markets. At the same time we have to face the future energy challenge and tougher fuel quality and GHG emissions targets. In Europe for example, the quality of gasoline and diesel fuels is currently being amended under the Fuel Quality Directive, and a common framework on sustainability criteria for biofuels is also being adopted."

So what is Shell offering transport customers to help them improve fuel economy and reduce CO2 emissions at the same time? We are offering improved Shell Diesel with fuel economy formula, a fuel efficient diesel developed specifically to improve fuel economy, which transport operators can purchase at Shell stations at no extra cost. In the UK, the product is known as Shell Diesel Extra, and similar Shell Diesel products with fuel economy formula are available in many other countries including Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Greece, Poland, Turkey, Chile, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Our tests show that we can deliver up to a three per cent better fuel economy, although trials like Europapier showed this can be higher.

Daimler used the fuel in combination with Shell fuel economy driveline lubricants in a seven-day endurance trial staged at the Nardo test track in Italy earlier this year. The controlled trial set out to establish a new fuel consumption record, using a 40-tonne gross combination weight Mercedes-Benz Actros tractor/trailer combination. Over a distance of 12728.9km (7909.4 miles), the truck averaged 14.53mpg, establishing the new record and gaining an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

We're also one of a few companies that have developed low-temperature Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. This produces a cleaner burning synthetic fraction of gasoil that is virtually free of sulphur and aromatics.

The fuel is compatible with modern diesel engines and existing distribution infrastructure and can be used either as a pure product or as a blend with conventional diesel. It has a very high cetane number of 75-80, which measures fuel combustion quality, when compared to a typical refinery diesel range of 45-50.

Most importantly, the fuel provides significantly lower emissions of local pollutants, such as particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides, and has the potential to improve local air quality in the world's increasingly crowded cities.

Shell started the world's first GTL plant in Bintulu in Malaysia in 1993 and plans to open the world's largest GTL plant in Qatar around the end of the decade. The plant will produce 140,000 barrels of GTL products per day, as well as 120,000 barrels of associated condensate and liquefied petroleum gas.

In May 2007, Shell joined forces with Connexxion, a Dutch bus company to run a six month road trial with seven buses running on 100 per cent pure GTL. This was the first time that buses had run on pure Shell GTL in the Netherlands and the trial reported no performance problems. Emissions measurements made by the UK's Millbrook Laboratory also highlighted significant local emissions benefits.

So what does the future hold for fuels technology? The sustainability of crude oil derived fuel is an issue government and industry wants to tackle to decrease CO2 emissions by testing and introducing fuels of the future and new combustion technologies. Reductions in vehicle emissions have been a key driving force behind the developments in engine technology. However, fuel and engine go hand-in-hand. You cannot introduce better technology without better fuel.

In the past five years Shell has invested £1 billion in alternative energies, including biofuels and hydrogen and last year quadrupled the rate of investment in second-generation biofuels from non-food biomass, such as stalks, marine algae, and wood chips.

We have become the world's largest distributor of conventional biofuels, mainly through our operations in the US and Brazil. We are also the first company to offer households heating fuel with bio-components, through the launch of Shell Thermo plusBio5 in northern Germany in 2007. The product was designed to achieve improved fuel combustion in the heating system compared to standard heating fuel, and takes it name from the 5 per cent renewable raw materials, such as the rapeseed-methyl ester components. Feedback from customers and feasibility of supply will determine when the product will be introduced to the market on a national scale.

Even with the steps towards a new generation of energy sources for the next several decades the majority of energy for transportation and other select critical industries will come from fossil fuel sources. However, there's still scope to improve the way gasoline and diesel is used in the engine to make it more efficient through the use of specific components or additives, which improve combustion, engine cleanliness levels or reduce friction.

Ultimately though, there is no silver bullet to solve energy challenges. It requires a portfolio approach across several key pathways.

Vincent Tertois is Global Fuels Technology Adviser with Shell's Commercial Fuels division, Colombes, France. www.shell.com. He is a qualified mechanical engineer and has worked for Shell since 1977, when he joined Shell Research as a fuels scientist. Since then, Vincent has moved to various technical and marketing jobs in France and the UK, specialising in developing leading-edge fuel and lubricant technologies. He took up his current position four years ago.