Exclusive Interview: Haldor Topsoe

Man behind the company at the cutting edge of fertiliser technology

The production site in Frederikssund, 40km from Copenhagen, employs 650 employees, runs 24/7 and has eight production units.
The production site in Frederikssund, 40km from Copenhagen, employs 650 employees, runs 24/7 and has eight production units.
Topsoe's commitment to catalysis is based on the notion that a fundamental understanding of the process forms the basis of catalysts which excel.
Topsoe's commitment to catalysis is based on the notion that a fundamental understanding of the process forms the basis of catalysts which excel.

Refining and Petrochemicals Middle East travels to Denmark, and meets the brains behind the family-run leader in catalyst production and fertiliser technology, Haldor Topsoe.

Haldor Topsøe stands out among other technology providers in the downstream industry. Today, as it was in 1940, the company is owned and run by the founder.

But it hasn’t always been this way. In 1972 the company became a PLC, with half of the shares transferring to Snamprogetti of Eni. However, after a 35-year partnership, in September 2007 Dr. Haldor Topsøe bought back the 50 % share in Haldor Topsøe A/S for a consideration of 340 million Euros in cash. Dr. Haldor Topsøe now once again holds all the shares in Haldor Topsøe A/S.

Dr Haldor Topsøe believes that this structure will speed up decision making for critical issues compared to other companies which face delays in taking them.

“If you think there is an urgent issue, come and talk to me or to my son Henrik and we will take a decision immediately,” says the 97-year-old company founder, in response to asking what differs his company from other competitors, and why he wanted his empire to once again become a family run business.

Dr Haldor started his company in the 1940s, turning his academic knowledge of chemistry and physics to business. The company controls almost 50% of the world’s fertiliser technology, mainly geared towards ammonia production.

“I started the company 70 years ago,” says Dr Haldor.

“After the war, important international collaboration was established, and of particular interest are our activities in India, Pakistan and the Middle East,” explains Dr Haldor.

“Now, with the fertiliser technologies we developed, more than a billion people are fed,” he says.

The first catalyst developed by Topsøe was the sulphuric acid catalyst, launching its first ammonia technology in the 1940s. “The first ammonia technology was introduced after the First World War in Koping in Sweden, with a production capacity of 30 t/d,” says Dr Haldor. “While the technology to produce more than 1000 t/d went on stream during the 1960s,” he notes.

“Currently, ammonia technology developed by Topsøe can produce up to 3000 t/d,” according to Dr Henrik Topsøe, CEO of the holding company.

Although the company today is famous as a major technology and catalyst provider, its business portfolio covers wider energy related sectors. “We extended our business into the refining sector, and have used our fundamental tools to develop the state-of-the-art catalysts we are offering today,” says Dr Henrik.

The company has also focused on developing environmentally friendly technologies.

“Our environmental department aims to inter alia treat flue gases from power plants, where we clean the gases from sulphur and NOx,” says Dr Haldor.

“We also remove organic compounds called VOC, so there will be no emission of dangerous gases, as it comes out after treatment as CO2, nitrogen, oxygen and water.” “We also have a fairly new segment, which is catalyst for reducing diesel exhaust emissions in the automotive industry. We aim to expand in this domain,” explains Dr Henrik.

Though the company produces a wide variety of catalysts, it mainly focuses on the heterogeneous type of catalysis. “My father and his colleagues found out that it was a field that really required a deep knowledge of physics, chemistry and engineering,” says Dr Henrik.

“They saw that it is important to focus not only on the catalyst but also on the process around the catalyst, as today it is not possible to design the most optimal processes if you don’t have intimate knowledge of how catalysts perform under different conditions,” he explains.

Another driver behind Haldor Topsøe’s focus on heterogeneous catalysis is the ability to develop very selective processes. “One main benefit of the catalytic technologies is the possibility to achieve high energy efficiency and high selectivity,” he notes.

“Thirty years ago, people didn’t focus on this, but today it is essential since high selectivity reduces emissions of undesirable byproducts, including CO2,” Dr Henrik explains.

The company also focuses on energy efficiency products. “As we have limited resources, we need to use them efficiently. This was another reason behind the focus on heterogeneous catalysis.”

From an early age, Dr Haldor had a scientific dream to understanding the catalyst and its surface. “From the basic understanding of how an atom is built up, we can now understand the nature of a catalyst’s surface,” says Dr Henrik.

“In recent years, this has allowed us to understand how molecules interact with catalysts in oil and gas processes, and the molecular approach has speeded up innovation of clean-fuel catalysts.”

This innovation spirit allowed the company to shine even during the toughest economic situations. “In spite of the crises, we launched more products, and more new processes have been introduced during the credit crunch,” Dr Henrik explains.

Middle East
The story of the company in the Middle East dates back to early 1960s, just after the independence of Kuwait in February 1961. Dr Haldor remembers exactly his first days in Kuwait and how he was welcomed by top Kuwaiti officials.

“A few days after the independence of Kuwait on 25th February 1961, I was invited to do some work in the country,” says Dr Haldor. “Part of my job in Kuwait was political while the other part involved technical consultancy in master planning at the department of oil and gas, to look for future development of the sector.”

Denmark was the first country to recognise the independence of Kuwait, paving the way for his company to get involved in various projects in the country.

“At that time, Kuwait Oil Company was to a large extent run by BP and Gulf, and I was asked to improve the operations of the company from a Kuwaiti perspective and also to conduct a study to calculate the cost of extracting the oil and sending it to tankers,” reveals Dr Haldor.

The founder of the company remembers very well the situation of the oil sector in Kuwait at that time, even the cost of Bergan crude oil.

“At that time, the proven crude oil reserve was sufficient for 11 years only, but people thought at that time this was satisfactory - there was enough oil.

“Immediately after the war, the price per barrel was $2.03, but in the following years it dropped to $1.65 and then $1.35 and even less was paid in the market,” he recalls.

As a company, Haldor Topsøe’s first involvement in Kuwait was also related to converting natural gas to fertilisers, and later other chemicals. For this, the company PIC was established by the government.

“It was an opportunity for Kuwait to build a refinery, as the profits from refined products were excellent compared to the export of crude oil,” he explains. “From that moment our company was involved in a new refinery in the region.”

“We were very proud that we could build the first refinery which treated all products, particularly for removing sulphur through hydrogenation. We emphasised the training of local people, so that shortly after start-up of the new refinery – the KNPC refinery built at Shuaiba – the responsibility for operation was in the hands of Kuwaitis,” explains Dr Haldor.

“We repeated the same approach in KSA and Oman, and after two years of completing projects there, they were also operated by locals,” he adds.

The company is currently involved in various projects across the Middle East, providing catalysts and process technologies and recently signed a contract with GPIC of Bahrain to revamp GPIC’s ammonia plant.

Speaking about the challenges that his company currently faces in the Middle East, Henrik says that having enough staff to be present at every client’s office is a major challenge.

“We have many relevant technologies for the region, and a big challenge is to follow up on all the opportunities. This will require more people from our company to be based there,” says Henrik.

“We have also recognised that having employees of local origin aids the communication line with the clients and we will also take this into account in planning the increase of our staffing in the region.”

Future innovations
Using nanotechnology allowed the company to start thinking about the new generations of catalysts, new ways to reduce energy use and introduction of clean fuel technologies.

“Now we understand catalysts better and better, and even if you take something as complicated as oil, with thousands of compounds reacting, we can understand the complexities at the molecular and atomic level and use this insight for new industrial innovations,” says Henrik.

Haldor says that catalysts will always be there, as they are critical components for all reactions in many different industries.

“Catalysts are like enzymes in the human body, and we need them everywhere,” he says. The company also dreams of developing new catalysts using solar energy.

“Chlorophyll is a catalyst that nature uses to handle the CO2 problem,” explains Dr Haldor. Using this characteristic of chlorophyll, the company aims to develop new businesses and processes.

“One may hope to develop better catalysts for photosynthesis. This may help reduce the growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, but let us remember that here you are dealing with extremely complex reactions not fully understood today.

In parallel with this approach, we have found other areas where catalysis can aid the integration of new, renewable energies into society,” he explains.

In addition to developing new catalysts, the company is focusing on the fuel cell business, aiming to convert primary raw materials like natural gas to electricity. “Fuel cells have a higher energy efficiency compared to diesel power stations and coal power stations.

“With these you can get energy efficiency of up to 30% and 40% respectively, while with fuel cells it reaches up to 60%,” he explains.

“Fuel cells are very interesting as they conserve resources; that’s why we started focusing also on this type of business,” concludes Dr Haldor.

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