Interview with Chang Samuel Hsu and Paul Robinson
Chang Samuel Hsu and Paul Robinson, editors of the recently published Springer Handbook of Petroleum Technology, discuss recent developments and challenges of the petroleum industry in the context of climate change.
Some may say fossil fuels such as oil are outdated. Why is petroleum and refinery still an important research topic?
Paul: For the long-term health of our planet, it is crucial to supplant fossil hydrocarbons as the major source of fuels and chemicals. However, even the most optimistic predict that the transition will require decades. Meanwhile, to make the transition more responsibly, we must understand and improve the technology behind finding, producing, refining, and using petroleum.
Sam: And even if we achieve the transition to renewable energy, one cannot overlook the plethora of materials used in our daily lives that are derived from petroleum: chemicals, plastics, rubbers, fibers, solvents, cosmetics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, just to name a few.
In your opinion, what has been the most significant development of the recent years in petroleum related research and industry?
Sam: We have seen a significant reduction in the sulfur content of fuels, along with the development of new alkylation processes and better ways to upgrade petroleum residues. Due to the increasing power in computing and the improvements of analytical technology, many process and product models have been developed for exploration as well as refining that utilize information on the molecular composition of fossil resources and products.
Paul: Sam is exactly right.
What are the biggest challenges ahead?
Sam: The biggest challenge is to understand heavy oils or fractions at a molecular level in order to design effective and economic processes to convert them into high-value products. Crude oils today become heavier and heavier, containing much more undesired and detrimental compounds. They are much more difficult to recover and process. Another challenge is to manage refinery wastes for clean and safe environments.
Paul: Despite the best efforts of some, there is still plenty of room throughout the industry to improve safety and decrease pollution. Recent deadly incidents, including the Deepwater Horizon blowout, would not have happened if key people had put safety ahead of greed.
How will research on petroleum and the petroleum industry look 20 years from now, especially in the context of climate change?
Paul: We are likely to see greater emphasis on coupling petroleum, coal, and shale resources with renewables. We suspect that the efficiency of processing biomass could be enhanced by the addition of certain petroleum fractions to the mix. Also, as the need for traditional refining decreases, existing equipment worth trillions of dollars could be transformed into climate-friendly facilities.
Sam: The integration of bio- and petroleum refineries would benefit both, leading to sustainability of feed supplies and process efficiency to reduce CO2 emission. All refinery processes will be controlled by computers through artificial intelligence to increase operational efficiency and greatly reduce the release/emission of fugitive chemicals and green-house gases, particularly CO2 and CH4.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in the field?
Paul: I nearly burned down my house with sugar/saltpeter rocket fuel in junior high school. Since then, I have been compelled to find ways to make chemistry and its related industries safer and more environmentally friendly.
Sam: I was amazed how many materials that can be made from petroleum. Even today I always find new challenges. One solution or answer often leads to another challenge or problem to resolve.
What is the most exciting part of your current work?
Sam: With a background in chemical engineering, I have been involved in the development of new analytical technologies to look into the molecular composition of complex mixtures such as crude oils. I am excited about current opportunities to collaborate with various research teams to stimulate more ideas and determine research goals and directions.
Paul: In starting a new career in sustainable energy, I’ve found that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks, and that old tricks are still important. And I love my new hobby: presenting lectures on climate change science to students and to local American Chemical Society chapters.
How would you describe the experience of editing the book?
Paul: It was gratifying to communicate successfully with people from so many different countries and backgrounds.
Sam: It greatly broadened my knowledge on various aspects of the petroleum industry. I have benefited from the in-depth discussions with experts from the different areas.
Was there any particular highlight?
Sam: I had known that Paul is a great expert. Working with him gives an even deeper impression how knowledgeable he is. Springer has also given us a lot of support and sometimes pressure to bring everything together. Otherwise, such a huge project could have easily lasted forever.
Paul: Editing this book was highly educational. Also memorable are the gentlemanly arguments with Sam and the regular conversations with our Springer editor.
For whom is the book a must-read?
Paul: Anyone with an interest in energy can learn something from this book. It is a must-read for industry professionals, especially those in management, research and operations.
Sam: Paul is right. But I would also add students, who are considering careers not only in the petroleum industry but also in the chemical and even in the pharmaceutical industries.
Anything else you would like to add?
Sam: The book covers all aspects of the fundamental principles of geoscience technology and chemical engineering derived from petroleum discovery, recovery and processing. Similar principles can be applied to the development of renewable biomass fuels/chemicals as well as clean coal technology, such as gasification, liquefaction and co-processing.
Paul: To progress toward the future, it is important to learn from the past. It is even more important to learn from the present. In the world of petroleum, the present is well-described by this book.