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Building on the success of mercury capture to drive change in the petroleum industry

John Holbrey
Professor John Holbrey
School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Kenneth Seddon
Professor Ken Seddon
School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Blue gloved hand handling mercury

HycaPure™ is an ionic liquid which removes mercury contaminants from natural gas. The technology was developed in a partnership between Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) and PETRONAS, the national oil and gas company of Malaysia.

In 2012 the first commercial scale pilot HycaPure™ system was launched, and by 2017, thirteen full industrial HycaPure™ systems had been installed in PETRONAS processing plants, constituting a huge processing capacity.

Subsequently, ongoing research links between QUILL and Petronas has provided a mechanism for the company to begin to move the focus of their research away from traditional oil and gas, as seen in their new £2,400,000 joint programme on innovative low carbon technologies.

Research Challenge

Eliminating mercury contamination in natural gas

A major challenge in hydrocarbon production is the removal of impurities that pose significant health and safety issues as well as contaminating products. Mercury contamination is a particular problem in natural gas.

Mercury is a highly toxic element which can be present in natural gas wells and natural gas production streams. Up to 11 tons of mercury are emitted in oil and gas processing plants yearly.

Mercury contamination is a significant issue that impacts both ecosystem and human health on a global scale. Being such a hazardous element, mercury must be removed from the gas stream, preferably on the production site.

Current methods used to remove mercury involve chemically-modified activated carbons, such as silver-impregnated molecular sieves and mixed metal sulphide/oxide scrubbers, are expensive and inefficient technologies. This method presents other issues such as the removal of all types of mercury species, problems with robustness when other contaminants are present in the feed, and the inability to deal with fluctuating mercury levels.

Our Approach

Queen’s expertise in ionic liquids

Queen’s University has been conducting ground-breaking research into the development of ionic liquids (liquid salts) and their applications in green chemistry for over 20 years. QUILL (Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories) carries out fundamental studies on the design and performance of ionic liquids, as well as their application in industrial processes.

The centre has a strong background in understanding structure-property relationships in ionic liquids from a fundamental perspective which forms the basis for controlling and exploiting them.

This expertise has allowed entirely new ionic liquid-based approaches to remove mercury from natural gas and condensate supplies to be developed. This is a considerable challenge since it requires complex mixtures of inorganic, organic, and elemental forms of mercury to be extracted from natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon streams on an industrial scale and must be sufficiently rapid to protect down-stream facilities from spikes in mercury content.

Researchers at Queen’s led a team that designed, synthesised, and tested materials based on active ionic liquids incorporated into porous solids for the treatment of contaminated gas streams at laboratory scale, this technology later became known as HycaPure™.

In partnership with PETRONAS, the technology was scaled-up and validated at pilot scale and subsequently providing the first commercial charge to treat natural gas at an on-shore PETRONAS gas processing plant.

The researchers have built upon this experience of developing the ionic liquid dry gas mercury removal technology to explore how the challenges with wet gas and liquid hydrocarbon condensate streams could be addressed.

HycaPure™ Hg is an award-winning technology that targets removal of most mercury species including elemental, inorganic, and organic mercury. The chemistry enables the capture of mercury to form an insoluble and stable form of mercury complex which does not dissolve in the feed stream.

What impact did it make?

A sustainable solution for chemical processing

The QUILL centre at Queen’s University is the first of its kind in the world.

The Ionic liquids or 'super solvents' developed at QUILL are salts that remain liquid at room temperature and do not release hazardous vapours.

Ionic liquids have huge potential to revolutionise how we live and work, and our impact on the environment. They can dissolve almost anything, from elements such as sulfur and phosphorus, which traditionally require nasty solvents, to harmful bacterial biofilms which protect MRSA from attack. They can also be used as lubricants, heat pumps, and compression fluids.

Crucially, they can also be used as non-polluting (green) alternatives to conventional solvents and are revolutionising chemical processes by offering a much more environmentally friendly and sustainable solution than traditional methods.

The impact of this work has been much broader than the large-scale implementation of a single technology. This fast-paced and successful research program into mercury capture cemented the collaboration between PETRONAS and QUILL, which has transformed into a long-term partnership with significant, and ongoing, research and training outcomes.

Key Facts
  • QUILL was the first research centre in the world to focus on the development of ionic liquids
  • HycaPure™ Hg is a robust, long-life solid-supported ionic liquid mercury removal technology.
  • The research developed from concept to commercialisation in less than four years, which is twice as fast as the industry norm. 
  • QUILL and Petronas have embarked on a new £2,400,000 joint programme on innovative low carbon technologies.

Our Impact

Impact related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Learn more about Queen’s University’s commitment to nurturing a culture of sustainability and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through research and education.

  • SDG 7 - Affordable and clean energy
  • UN Goal 07 -Affordable and clean energy

Impacting in Countries/Regions

Impacted Regions
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Sub-themes
  • Sustainable energy and manufacturing