Thought Leaders

The Industrial Laboratory and the Changing World of Energy

Thought LeadersJoe PowellChief ScientistShell

In this interview, Dr. Joseph B. Powell, recently retired Chief Scientist - Chemical Engineering at Shell talks to AZoM about the past, present and future of the industrial laboratory for energy and chemicals which he will be presenting at Pittcon this year for the Wallace H. Coulter Lecture.

Can you begin by defining and describing an ‘industrial laboratory’?

While perhaps less common than in the past, many companies have large laboratories where they develop new products and processes "in house".  This is especially true for industries such as pharmaceuticals and specialty materials, the major automakers, semiconductor and microelectronics, and others where R&D is critical to development of differentiated technology and products.   Fundamental science may also be explored to launch future opportunity, often in concert with external collaboration.

Shell has major R&D hubs in Houston, Amsterdam and Bangalore. These hubs include labs for small-scale bench experiments, as well as larger pilot plants and development units that are needed for scaling up processes.  Industrial laboratories play a very important role in a company's mission to deliver new products and processes and to scale up to commercial deployment.

How essential is research into energy and chemicals, specifically analysis of its past, present and future, to the science and engineering industries?

It is very important because the world and society's needs are constantly changing and evolving.  New and improved processes and products must constantly be developed to meet growing and emerging product and sustainability needs.   Key issues today are climate change and the circular economy.

To effectively respond to these challenges, we must not only address the scientific targets and technical needs, but also how research is being done and how it can be performed more efficiently. To this end we look at how we are going about R&D and seek to continuously improve our methodologies and capabilities.   This is very important for our goal of leading innovation in our industry, to meet the needs of our customers, stakeholders, and society at large.

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Could you describe the evolution of energy and chemicals research in an industrial lab setting?

In terms of actual pilot plant equipment, the Shell pilot plants from Emeryville dating back to the 1940s do not look that different from some of the units that we have today. And so, when it comes to piloting and scale-up, the process equipment itself often looks somewhat similar.

However, when it comes to R&D and some of the more advanced methodologies – for example, multi-throughput experimentation for catalysis, advanced in situ measurement devices and robotics for catalyst preparations – we have moved forward quite a bit in enhancing experimental capabilities.  Instrumentation, automated control and data monitoring have progressed across all systems, and in the future we will see further automation of laboratories, as well as increased use of data analytics, computational modeling, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to improve efficiency and design.    Being able to explore and develop more technologies at smaller laboratory scales with reduced footprint and increased safety, in shorter periods of time, is important.   

Tell us about the importance of chemical and biological engineering in the context of everyday lives?

Tremendous challenges in energy and chemicals persist going forward, and chemical engineering will be at the very forefront of the search for solutions. Cell phones and their displays, your TV, laptop, video game console, smart watch, medicines and medical equipment, clothing and fabrics in your home, the cushion you sit on, the car, bus, or truck you use for travel or to bring you those on-line orders, virtually all features of what we now call everyday life are underpinned by materials and components that are designed and produced via chemical engineering.

Looking at and optimizing the process and industrial systems that are required and must be integrated into energy and chemicals, to do so necessitates chemical engineering.  The plastics industry has been growing at roughly eight percent per year since 1950 and includes all of the products that you are using today that comprise the "modern world".   

The demand for new solutions remains high.   Looking to the future, our industry must continue to address all stakeholder needs in providing products to you, the consumers at reduced environmental footprint, to protect the planet, its climate and resources.   

You are going to be presenting the Wallace H. Coulter Lecture and your presentation will be titled, ‘The Industrial Laboratory For Energy and Chemicals: Past, Present, and Future’. Tell us about what you are going to be presenting this year.


I will describe the pressing need to reduce carbon footprints to mitigate climate change, while meeting growing demand for energy and products which improve quality of life.  The needed transition and transformation in energy and chemicals will require an unprecedented rate of new technology development.   More efficient and effective ways of conducting R&D will be needed.  I will explore some examples of the use of laboratory equipment and advanced methods to address these grand challenges and accelerate development and deployment of new technology.

Sustainability in the Energy Industry - Joseph Powell

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Could you tell us a little bit more about the challenges the energy industry is facing and how your research is going to help overcome those challenges?

Incorporation of renewable energy into the energy system and addressing issues like intermittency, low energy density and land use, are significant and important challenges.   Electricity and hydrogen will play an increasing role in how energy is conveyed to end users.  We need to further explore how we make use of bio-based or recycle feedstocks for synthesizing chemical products and fuels.  

I will be addressing what those development programs look like, what the challenges are, and how core expertise in the fundamentals of chemical engineering and chemistry will provide a pathway to solution.   Solutions to these problems must be found, and then developed and scaled up so that they can be deployed and used commercially.   The energy industry knows how to design and implement the large- scale energy and chemical process systems that will be needed.  

Your research covers novel chemical processes, oil recovery and biofuels. What are biofuels and their potential for solving energy challenges today?

Most people are familiar with ethanol biofuel, which is made by fermentation. For example, our Raizen business in Brazil is a world leader in providing ethanol from sugar cane to consumers.  

I spent more than 10 years working on advanced biofuels, and Shell continues in these developments which take non-edible feedstocks such as food or plant wastes, agricultural residues, wood chips, or other landfill materials and convert them into fuels.   Advanced biofuels would be drop-in replacements for conventional gasoline, diesel, or aviation fuels.  No new infrastructure is required, but efficiency and sustainable conversion is a grand challenge!

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Energy and the environment have been intertwined by scientific research throughout the years, the latest concerns of energy regarding carbon economics. What advice do you offer for energy transitions to a net-zero carbon economy?

It is important to have a value or price on carbon so that we can move forward on addressing climate change and circularity and bring the technologies that we have been developing and progressing for decades into the marketplace.

If you look at places like Europe and California, there is some degree of carbon pricing and incentives now. This provides the impetus to bring hydrogen as a clean energy carrier into the marketplace, perhaps for driving fuel cell vehicles or converted back into electricity to power battery-electric cars.

How that is to be done on a major scale and become a dominant form of transportation and energy provides many exciting opportunities.  

You have touched on how climate changes are a big factor for the energy community and energy applications. Your research covers energy and chemicals but also emphasizes sustainability development. How does the priority of sustainability shape the direction of your work?

I graduated from school during the energy crises of the '70s and '80s, when there was an absolute lack of energy.   Gasoline was rationed, and there was high global anxiety about our collective future.  Finding sources of energy for humankind was the overriding issue in "sustainability" for the day-- this was front page news!

Since then, we have discovered many different kinds of energy resources.  The question has become which ones to use, where, and how, to address environmental stewardship, care for the planet, but also affordability so that access to energy is plausible for all people across the globe.  

Stakeholders and consumers are increasingly asking for these aspects of sustainability to be added to the economic part of the equation, and that has been the focus of our new developments on energy and chemicals for the last few decades.

When I look back at our high-profile projects in the chemicals sector over the past three decades, these have been driven by delivering cleaner products to the marketplace, with processes that have a reduced environmental footprint. Shell formed its sustainability network in 1999 and I published a book on the subject, and this has been a major driver behind our innovation opportunities for multiple decades now.

In July 2020, you published “A hierarchical clustering decomposition algorithm for optimizing renewable power systems with storage”. Can you tell us more about this research?

I have to acknowledge some of my colleagues at the Energy Institute at Texas A&M University for providing the high-level mathematics for that study, which deals with the intermittency of renewable energy. When trying to optimize and look at an energy system with high degrees of intermittency and complexity, it is very computationally intensive.

That particular paper described a new algorithm for the grouping of representative days of solar and wind availability, which could then be input into a large parameter model that could generate a result within our lifetime, so that multiple options could be considered and evaluated.  

On the computational side, it is very important to be developing these advanced algorithms because the energy system problems that we are tackling are enormous. The good news is that these very large parameter models can be put together in order to look at the optimizations across that system, and can lead us to new insights in how to design and configure the future energy system.  This is also a good example in use of external collaboration.  

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Whether it is harnessing air, water, or solar energy, renewable power sources have become a forefront in energy advances. What are some benefits and drawbacks of such energy technologies?

The intermittency of the renewables has to be addressed as people's needs are 24/7 in terms of energy demands.   Consider day / night and seasonal variations in solar and wind availability, as well as in heating and power.  Renewable solutions have to be able to provide energy when it is needed, and not just when it is easy or convenient to do.  The good news is that renewable options are cleaner and more widely available, but they are not available all the time, or at the same intensity everywhere in the world.

Land use around major cities -- where most people now live -- is an issue. Land is often expensive and has limited availability. We really have to look at developing energy carriers to move energy from resource-rich regions where land is available and cheap, to urban centers. There are great challenges and opportunities in providing vectors such as hydrogen for moving and storing renewable and clean energy in this manner.  

You have worked on some specific case studies in New York City and Texas regarding synthetic fuels and chemicals production. Could you tell us a little more about these case studies?

We looked at moving renewable energy in the form of wind and solar from Texas to New York City in order to provide a portion of the electric grid supply. There is a penalty for making a carrier like hydrogen to do that - ammonia would be another example of a hydrogen-based carrier - but once the carrier has been made, you can take advantage of a higher resource intensity for solar and wind in Texas, which also has lower land-use costs, and then have the opportunity to move it over long distances to an urban location like New York. In doing so, storage capacity is also provided, as the carrier can be stored more easily in large quantities, than is the case for electrons.   

Modeling shows a potential advantage in lower land costs, higher solar and wind intensity, and storage benefits, in spite of the fact that some energy is consumed in making the carrier and then converting it back to electricity. Those case studies were a good example of moving renewable energy around, storing it, and getting it to the urban demand centers that are requiring it.

Taking into account the case studies that you have told us about your research from over the years and your time at Shell, what surprising obstacles have you faced during your research on energy and chemicals?

The major obstacle is the ability to predict the future. I have been amazed at how dynamic the energy and environmental sustainability situation has been over my career, moving from a complete lack of energy to an abundance, as a result of new technologies like the fracking and shale gas revolution, deep water production of oil and gas and the precipitous drop in solar PV and wind costs for making renewable energy.   

Consumers also change their product preferences, relative weightings of environmental and economic stressors over time, which contributes along with external events to an ever-evolving energy landscape that requires an adept research community to respond to the changes in stakeholder interests and needs.

Keeping ahead of those changes is certainly the big challenge, this last year of COVID being a good example of a change in terms of how we are going about our business and work, our personal lives, what we are prioritize, and hence what we need to do to go forward.   Expecting and being responsive to change, is key.  

With COVID, how did you change? How did you adapt to that?

Our scientific and technical experts are distributed across the globe, for Shell across three major global hubs, so we accelerated the use of virtual meetings and tools to enhance collaboration, while reducing the need for travel.   Cloud-based collaboration tools also allow spanning of different time zones for effective use of staff time.   

It is possible to do remote monitoring of experimental programs using process control and database toolkits, so it is not necessary to be in the lab to get a good hands-on feel of what is happening.   Virtual meetings and collaboration tools can be globally inclusive of all collective expertise, and one can fit in more meetings and time for problem solving by avoiding the time spent on travel.   I am sure we have reduced our CO2 footprint from air travel by using the new tools, and that is going to continue into the future as a new best practice.

Air travel is one of the most significant sources of carbon emissions. What do you think the roadmap is for the introduction of sustainable aviation fuels?

Aviation is one of the great challenge areas because of the energy density required for effective design and operation of a jumbo jet, for example. The road transport sector is a large consumer of energy, and there are solutions in place such as battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but air travel especially in the larger jets is particularly difficult to decarbonize.

Batteries may work for very small planes on local routes in aviation, while hydrogen fuel cells may work for slightly larger planes, but for the largest intercontinental jet travel, a higher energy density fuel is needed.  Hydrogen may not suffice.

For that reason, Shell is working on providing future clean fuels to tackle the problem of decarbonizing aviation. Biofuels can be used for this purpose, but Shell is also looking at direct air capture of CO2, which can be reformed with renewable or clean hydrogen to make solar or zero-carbon fuels. These would be drop-in replacements for the jet fuels that are used today, but with greatly reduced footprints.   

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As a current chair on the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee (HTAC), you are able to contribute scientific knowledge into policy. How has this experience shaped your work?

HTAC championed DOE partnering with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) for creation of the Center for Hydrogen Safety (CHS). This paved the way for a global institute for sharing best practices and safe handling of hydrogen, which is very important given the extent of new participants entering into the hydrogen arena. 

In HTAC, industry, national labs and academic committee members can learn from each other in areas that include R&D and commercial developments for new fuel cells, electrolyzers for hydrogen manufacture, storage materials, hydrogen transport and dispensing, safety, as well as what is happening in the marketplace in terms of new mobility solutions and the availability of fuel cell vehicles and refueling stations.  

That interaction helps us collectively to recommend and target what types of R&D should be done, how to leverage collaboration, and to encourage partnerships across the supply chain. 

What advantages are there from using hydrogen as an energy vector and storage for renewables over more mature technologies like battery storage?

Both have their places in usage. A battery is 70 to 90% efficient in terms of storage but the problem is the energy density, the duration and the cost.

While it is a great solution for short term storage where relatively low-density systems are plausible, like your laptop or cell phone, hydrogen is better suited when higher energy density is needed, such as in seasonal storage of wind and solar or when energy is moved across long distances. They both have their opportunity space.

Shell is working on both, but each has its place to play as an optimum. Heavy-duty trucking, for example, requires the higher energy density that comes with hydrogen in order to make that a good value proposition relative to range and payload. Because hydrogen has to be made out of renewable or clean energy, a penalty is paid in terms of the roundtrip efficiency of making hydrogen as a carrier and then converting it back to electricity.  The roundtrip or cycle efficiency is therefore less than for batteries, but storage and energy density are increased, which is important for longer term grid or heavier duty transit applications.  

You are also a chief scientist in chemical engineering for Shell. What has been Shell’s role as a company in the chemical engineering and fuel industries?

Shell has a very long tradition in leading innovations in energy. I am standing on the shoulders of some very excellent and famous engineers, scientists, and inventors that have been part of the company over its history of more than 100 years.  It has been a great honor for me to help carry on this tradition.  

Shell’s staff have spanned a breadth of contributions from fundamental science and engineering in oil and gas production, chemicals production, expanding now to biosciences including biofuels and bio-based chemicals, and also things like advanced process control and environmental catalysis which makes the industry cleaner and more efficient.  Chemical engineering has been central to everything Shell has been doing on the surface in its facilities, as well as now the subsurface including opportunities in enhanced oil recovery, and capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide or CO2.

One of Shell’s flagship projects is the gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar, which is the world's largest. The plant converts natural gas into clean-burning diesel, and hydrocarbons that are intrinsically safe to humans and the environment for use as solvents or lubricants.  This is an example of a major technology development that occurred in recent years using fundamentals of chemical engineering and catalysis across a multiple-step process, to implement advantaged cleaner solutions.

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Could you tell us a little bit more about what the future will hold for you in your research on energy and chemicals?

Shell is very excited about energy vectors like hydrogen for use as a clean, zero-emission fuel across a wide spectrum of applications.   Also, in prospects for future capture of  CO2 out of the air to make solar fuels or hydrocarbons that are renewable-based and hence can be burned without a carbon footprint penalty. That requires chemical engineering conversion, but we are working on all of the above to be able to provide a clean and environmentally advantaged jet fuel of the future.    Biology can be used to help produce fuels and provide nature-based solutions for carbon mitigation, while advanced carbon capture and storage can provide opportunities for net negative emissions, or removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Shell is also continuing to work on advanced biofuels, chemicals, and the circular products economy, providing an incentive to recycle plastics waste and prevent its loss to the environment.  

Do you expect more technologies that will help us reduce plastic waste?

Indeed, there are some great technologies that combine renewable energies with plastics waste recycling, including use of electrification and hydrogen to provide the process heat.  Those new trends couple the renewable or clean energy drivers with circularity to protect climate and ecosystems.   Enabling efficient recycle will provide incentives for preventing the leakage of plastics into the environment.

What other renewable energy source applications will you be discussing at Pittcon this year?

I will be discussing clean sources of energy and how we integrate wind and solar, which has been our focus, into the energy system, as well as how we continue to use natural gas and bioresources, coupling those with COcapture and sequestration to make them clean.    

My talk will focus on managing the energy transition to achieve less than 1.5 degrees C temperature rise, while also providing for the energy needs of the developing world and for delivering on circularity for chemical products.  I will paint a picture as to why so many new and different technologies are needed across this space, and dive into some of the laboratory and research opportunities that must be pursued to make this more efficient, given the enormous amount of new technology development that must be undertaken to make this happen.

When it comes to Pittcon, we are really looking forward to making connections with providers of advanced methods and laboratory capabilities, and learning from others.  Continuous improvement of our toolkits and capabilities is very important to achieve these ambitious goals. 

How does Pittcon influence the realms of chemical engineering and energy science?

Pittcon is a great opportunity and space to learn about what is new out there in in the field, as well as an opportunity to network and communicate our challenges and needs so that new laboratory components and capabilities can be developed.  

In the future, I see a much larger use of robotics in terms of how laboratory programs will be run. One can imagine doing a number of things that we do at the bench today using a robotic system where one can simply dial up or program a configuration needed for the moment, and then implement.  This can increase speed and safety.  Also, there will be more cross-learning in discovery chemistry via use of data analytics, augmented by machine learning and computational modeling to speed materials discovery.  

I think Pittcon is a good two-way communication between what industries and research labs need, and the people who are providing solutions.  

Are you looking forward to virtual Pittcon? What new trends do you think it will bring?

Virtual Pittcon is exciting. I personally have found that I can attend many more meetings, conferences, and workshops if not spending so much time on travel.  With some creativity and effort, it is possible to get good at making new connections virtually, and visual tools including virtual reality are becoming more commonplace.  I have seen some very interesting breakout and networking sessions using virtual tools, and am quite committed to making this work into a future beyond Covid, given the carbon footprint reduction it also offers.  

For the attendees and audience, virtual presentations and recordings avoid time conflicts, and can be worked into one's schedule, so the potential is there to expand and see even more than could happen in person.

2020 has been a very different year. Why are events like Pittcon important for the science community to come together, now more than ever?

Our challenges are greater than ever and we need to be aware of new developments. I find networking to be tremendously valuable to keep in touch with, not only what our opportunities are, but also what are our stakeholders’ interests are.

The act of presenting a conference paper certainly helps drive the research community forward to show latest results, and get input from peers on new developments.   Peer input and feedback is a critical aspect of technology development and improvement, and in moving forward as a community by leveraging experience and knowledge.   The learning opportunities translate back into what we are doing in our day jobs. I hope that the virtual aspect will be an advantage and we can do more of it in the future.

About Joe Powell

Joe Powell (Joseph B. Powell, PhD) is Fellow and former Director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and served as Shell’s first Chief Scientist – Chemical Engineering from 2006 until retiring at the end of 2020, culminating a 36-year industry career where he led R&D programs in new chemical processes, biofuels, enhanced oil recovery, and advised on R&D for energy transition to a net-zero carbon economy. Dr. Powell is co-inventor on more than 125 patent applications (60 granted), has received AIChE / ACS / R&D Magazine awards for Innovation, Service, and Practice, and is co-author of Sustainable Development in the Process Industries: Cases and Impact (2010). He chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee (HTAC), and was elected to the U. S. National Academy of Engineering (2021) after serving two terms on the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology. He served as guest editor of Catalysis Today Natural Gas Utilization, on the editorial board for Annual Review of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and was Crosscutting Technologies team lead and author for Mission Innovation Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (2017). He currently advises in energy and chemicals and process development (ChemePD LLC).   Joe obtained a PhD from U. Wisconsin-Madison in 1984, following a BS from U. Virginia (1978), both in chemical engineering.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.


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