Syngas draws world-renowned experts to Cape Town

22 May 2015 - 13:45

Professor Michael Claeys director of c*change

The second Syngas Convention took place in March 2015. It drew experts and delegates from around the world to present their latest research on topics covering the entire value chain from synthesis gas (or syngas) to final products, with an emphasis on downstream processes. South Africa – as a world leader in the gas-to-liquids (GTL) industry – was an apt location for the event.

The convention which drew academic giants, Professor Hans Schulz and Dr Mark Dry, in the Fischer-Tropsch process (extracting fuels from gas and coal originally innovated in Germany and further developed in South Africa) was organised by c*change which is hosted by the Centre for Catalysis Research in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town.

The purpose of the second Syngas Convention, an event held every three years, was to present cutting-edge research and new thinking in the area of syngas, and inspire a series of further conventions, as well as increase international recognition of the pivotal role South Africa plays in the use of synthesis gas for the production of fuels and gases.

Professor Michael Claeys, director of c*change says, “All energy will eventually have to come from sustainable sources like the sun, but we are now in a period of transition in which energy from fossil sources will continue to be used for some time to come. Liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel are at present best for storing and transporting energy since their energy content per unit of volume and weight is unsurpassed, and the necessary infrastructure is widely available. These factors make conversion technologies like gas (GTL), biomass (BTL) and coal-to-liquids (CTL) attractive options. Synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is the key intermediate in all these conversions.”

Syngas is produced industrially from feedstocks that contain carbon – usually coal, heavy oil, natural gas or biomass. Through gasification and chemical reactions the molecules are split and joined into the desired formulas to make a wide range of synthetic products: from diesel, petrol and lubricants to speciality chemicals e.g. for the production of plastics.

During the convention’s first plenary lecture by Sasol’s Dr Cathy Dwyer, Vice-President: Chemicals and Refining Research, Group Technology, she announced that syngas will remain a key enabler for integrated energy and chemicals giant, Sasol, until at least the middle of the century.

“In addition to the deployment of Sasol’s proprietary GTL technology, which remains a significant part of the company’s international growth ambitions, Sasol plans to sustain and expand its integrated value chain in Southern Africa – which is primarily syngas-based – until at least 2050,” said Dwyer.

The industry is at present in a critical growth-phase and a key factor driving its ability to deliver value sustainability to its shareholders is, and will continue to be, its efficient utilisation of feedstocks.

Dwyer says, “Feedstock pricing is one of the most significant factors affecting profitability of new petrochemical projects. Yield is therefore everything in chemical process technology. Every unconverted molecule of feedstock typically needs to be recycled, making for bigger reactors and adding to capital and operating costs. Every molecule of feedstock which is converted to something other than your intended product also erodes profitability, because by-products have a lower value but also because those by-products will cost you money to separate and process further, sell or dispose of. There is still much scope in the R&D space for clever catalysis and process engineering to further improve conversions and yields and to help drive down costs.”

For this reason, any new technologies that can provide a competitive advantage for production of chemical building blocks from natural gas and other feedstocks are of great interest to the industry. 

In order to strengthen the expert and fundamental knowledge in these technologies, the convention was preceded by an Autumn School held in Cape Town on “Fundamental aspects in Catalysis” with lectures by leading experts in their field. The Syngas 2 Convention followed with four plenary and six keynote presentations, 35 oral and 32 poster presentations delivered by 110 delegates, more than 40 percent of whom were international experts in their fields. Clearly the principle that underpinned the Syngas 2 Convention was one of international collaboration and knowledge-sharing which could lead to society-changing innovations in the years ahead for those working in the area of synthesis gas, whether as academics or industrialists.