Saudi Arabia Makes Big Move To Green The Desert

By Simon Constable originally published Dec 1, 2020 for Forbes

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is getting serious about going green.

At least it is hard to make any other conclusion following an announcement made Monday by the country’s oil giant Aramco as well as other involved parties. However, you may have to read between the lines to understand the significance.

The key news was that Aramco has signed a memorandum of understanding with Shell & AMG Recycling BV, to conduct a study of the feasibility of developing a world-class vanadium recycling facility in the Arab country. Shell & AMG Recycling BV is a joint venture between oil giant Royal Dutch Shell and specialty materials company AMG Advanced Metallurgical Group NV in Amsterdam (AMS.Amsterdam.) AMG is the undisputed technology leader in the recovery of vanadium from spent catalysts and the world’s largest recycler of the metal.

So what? Many people reading this may not know what vanadium is or how important it could be to the Kingdom and its growing green initiatives.

The first thing to know is that the oil industry relies on catalysts to convert crude oil into other products such as gasoline. However, these catalysts don’t last forever. At some point, they lose their usefulness, and they become spent. When they are spent they contain vanadium which comes from the oil.

At that point, new catalysts are required, while the spent ones, which are hazardous, get recycled.

Shell-AMG JV to Help Supercharge Green Saudi

That’s where the Shell AMG JV comes into the picture. The MOU the JV signed with Aramco is all about drawing up a feasibility study of building a facility to recover the vanadium.

“Innovation in the private sector is what is going to clean up things and this is what is going on in Saudi Arabia,” says Steve Hanke, chairman of AMG NV’s supervisory board and professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University. “One man’s hazardous trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s the way that AMG looks at these catalysts.”

While recycling the vanadium is green in itself, that’s not where the story ends.

Vanadium is used as an alloying agent to make stronger, and more resilient steel. Such alloys of so-called ferrovanadium and steel allow buildings to get constructed using less steel than they would with regular unalloyed steel. This is economically more viable and greener because less steel gets used which costs less and results in lower carbon emissions.

Double-loop Recycling for Saudi

“You can see that it’s a double loop circular economy,” says Heinz Schimmelsbusch, chairman and CEO of AMG Advanced Metallurgical Group NV in Amsterdam (AMS.Amsterdam,) which owns 50% of the Shell-AMG JV. Or put another way, recycling the oil refining catalysts is only one stage of a two-stage greening process. “The concept is to turn oil refinery waste into a domestic resource for the production of vanadium, a critical alloy that improves the quality of infrastructure steel.”

That alone is pretty impressive. But the potential plans also come in tandem with another vanadium-related green initiative being pursued in Saudi Arabia.

Sunny Green Future for Saudi

The Kingdom is making a big bet on wind and solar energy. However, such energy has an inherent problem — it’s not necessarily available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

The energy can be available if it is stored in batteries, which is where vanadium, the Shell-AMG JV and the double loop recycling economy pop up again.

When heavy fuels, such as bunker fuel, are gasified then ash, which contains vanadium oxide, gets produced as a byproduct. This process on its own is cleaner than burning the heavy fuel, but the story gets better.

The JV will be looking at the feasibility of extracting that vanadium oxide, which will then likely be used to make vanadium oxide storage batteries to help facilitate increased use of solar energy. That’s great for the Kingdom because it’s a sunny place and with this new initiative it could well be a green place too.

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