UOA08-01: Oxford Catalysts Group – a successful company built on the development and application of highly-active catalysts for the conversion of natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentChemistry
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Chemical Sciences: Inorganic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry (incl. Structural), Other Chemical Sciences
Summary of the impact
Research carried out by Malcolm Green's group in the UOA led to the
spin-out of Oxford Catalysts Ltd. A large part of the company's technology
is based on Green's transition-metal catalysis research, which has enabled
them to develop a highly efficient Fischer-Tropsch (FT) catalyst to
convert natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons. In 2010, Oxford Catalysts
Group (now Velocys) demonstrated the world's first smaller-scale, modular
gas-to-liquids and biomass-to-liquids FT plants which made use of the
catalyst for the efficient conversion of low-value or waste gas to liquid
hydrocarbon fuels. Since then, orders worth £ 8M have been taken and the
company has been selected to provide FT technology for 4 commercial
projects. From 2008 - 2012, the company raised over £ 60M, achieved
revenue of £ 30M and now employs around 90 people.
The Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process is a collection of chemical reactions
that converts a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen (`synthesis gas'
or syngas) into synthetic crude that can be upgraded to high-quality motor
fuel. Developed in Germany in the 1920s, the process was used in World War
II to enable Germany to produce liquid fuels from coal when oil was not
available, and again in South Africa where it was subject to sanctions
during the apartheid era. The production of synthetic crude via the FT
synthesis has not been adopted widely owing to the availability of cheap
oil. However concern about diminishing oil supplies, combined with an
increasing need to make use of `wasted' resources, such as gas produced
from waste biomass or the gas associated with oil production, is leading
to a renewed and growing interest in FT catalysis.
The key technology behind the catalysts used by Oxford Catalysts is the
result of nearly two decades of research at the Wolfson Catalysis Centre
(part of the University of Oxford's Department of Chemistry). The focus
has been on the use of transition-metal carbides as catalysts for the
partial oxidation of methane to syngas, and as highly active, selective
and stable FT catalysts for the conversion of syngas to synthetic crude.
This work was led by Green, the co-founder of Oxford Catalysts Ltd. who
was Head of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford (to October 2003).
In 1993, Green reported a systematic investigation into the carbon
deposition caused by a range of transition metals acting as catalysts for
the partial oxidation of methane (POM). This built on his previous
serendipitous finding that a lanthanide ruthenium oxide catalyst gave a
remarkable 90% yield of syngas from methane via POM catalysis. Prior to
this discovery, it had been considered impossible to convert methane to
syngas in this way. Although only a thin film of carbon formed in the
process, Green was aware that carbon deposition could potentially `kill' a
catalyst and render it useless for industrial exploitation. The 1993 study
showed that nickel attracted the most carbon deposition and iridium the
least, but the ruthenium and iridium catalysts, although effective, were
too expensive for commercial use, and this prompted Green to look for
alternatives . He subsequently developed less expensive, non-precious
metal, molybdenum and tungsten carbide catalysts [2, 3, 4], which,
importantly, showed no macroscopic deposition of carbon.
In 2001, Green developed a non-carbide cobalt methane oxidation catalyst
with activities comparable to noble-metal catalysts under comparable
conditions . Green's research continued to develop carbide catalysts
towards industrial exploitation using micro-reactors and, in 2002, he
reported catalysts that were stable at high temperatures and pressures
using this technology . The final critical development with regard to
the commercial systems currently used by Oxford Catalysts Ltd. was
described in a patent application filed in 2001 , in which cobalt salt
precursors to the supported active catalysts are activated in a process
involving hydrocarbon reductants. These catalysts have superior activity
and are less susceptible to deactivation over time. This method of
activation of the catalyst precursor forms a mixture of metallic cobalt
and cobalt carbides. Critically, these catalysts are not only effective
for POM, but also for FT catalysis that converts syngas into hydrocarbons
. Moreover, they do not promote carbon deposition and are selective to
form hydrocarbons with five or more carbon atoms. A high selectivity is
required for an economic commercial process.
In 2004, Green spun-out the company Oxford Catalysts Ltd. with the aim of
developing a number of novel metal-carbide catalysts and catalysed
processes that could lead to marketable products based in particular on
the new FT catalyst technology.
References to the research
Asterisked outputs denote best indicators of quality; University of
Oxford authors are underlined.
 A study of carbon deposition on catalysts during the partial
oxidation of methane to synthesis gas. Claridge, J. B.; Green,
M. L. H.; Tsang, S. C.; York, A. P. E.; Ashcroft,
A. T.; Battle, P. D. Catalysis Letters 22 (4),
299-305, 1993. DOI: 10.1007/BF00807237
 Molybdenum and tungsten carbides as catalysts for the conversion of
methane to synthesis gas using stoichiometric feedstocks. York, A. P.
E.; Claridge, J. B.; Brungs, A. J.; Tsang, S. C.;
Green, M. L. H. Chemical Communications 1, 39-40, 1997.
* New catalysts for the conversion of methane to synthesis gas:
Molybdenum and tungsten carbide. Claridge, J. B.; York, A. P.
E.; Brungs, A. J.; Marquez-Alvarez, C.; Sloan,
J.; Tsang, S. C.; Green, M. L. H. Journal of
Catalysis 180 (1), 85-100, 1998. DOI: 10.1006/jcat.1998.2260. Paper
illustrates the underpinning expertise in carbide catalyst technology of
the Oxford Research Group.
* Study on the mechanism of partial oxidation of methane to synthesis
gas over molybdenum carbide catalyst. Xiao, T. C.; Hanif, A.;
York, A. P. E.; Nishizaka, Y.; Green, M. L. H. Physical
Chemistry Chemical Physics 4 (18), 4549-4554, 2002. DOI:
10.1039/b204347e. Underpinning expertise in carbide catalyst
technology of the Oxford research group in combination with a
 Methane combustion over supported cobalt catalysts. Xiao, T. C.;
Ji, S. F.; Wang, H. T.; Coleman, K. S.; Green, M. L.
H. Journal of Molecular Catalysis A-Chemical 175 (1-2),
111-123, 2001. DOI: 10.1016/S1381-1169(01)00205-9
* A supported cobalt-containing catalyst used in the partial oxidation
of hydrocarbons or Fischer-Tropsch reaction. Green, M. L. H. and Xiao,
T. C. Int. Appl. (2003), WO 2003002252. Assignee: Isis Innovation
Limited, UK (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University of Oxford,
managing technology transfer). http://www.google.com/patents/WO2003002252A1?cl=en
One of the base patents underpinning Oxford Catalysts Ltd. FT
Details of the impact
The research described above has underpinned the development of the first
smaller-scale, modular gas-to-liquids (GTL) and biomass-to-liquids (BTL)
Fischer-Tropsch (FT) reactors, launched by Oxford Catalysts Group in 2010.
Several orders for reactors have been taken; the company has attracted
very substantial investment as a result of the novel technology it offers,
and has one of the world's largest patent portfolios in this area.
After its spin-out from the University of Oxford in 2004, Oxford
Catalysts Ltd. concentrated on the creation of highly active and efficient
cobalt-based FT catalysts based on Green's research. Such was the
perceived potential of this new technology that the company's Initial
Public Offering of 2006 raised £ 15M and was over-subscribed. Oxford
Catalysts' patented technology, known as Organic Matrix Combustion (OMX),
allows highly active cobalt-based catalysts to be produced with a reduced
need for precious metal promoters, without any loss of performance and in
fact with superior activity, selectivity and stability to conventional
catalysts. In 2008, the company merged with Velocys, a US company
specialising in microchannel chemical reactors (using channels with
diameters in the range 0.1 - 10 mm, far smaller than those in conventional
reactors). These small channels dissipate heat more quickly than
conventional reactors so a more active catalyst can be used, and the mass
and heat transfer limitations of conventional FT reactors are overcome.
Importantly, this allowed Oxford Catalysts to take advantage of the highly
active cobalt catalysts developed by Green . The use of microchannel
processing technology makes it possible to greatly intensify chemical
reactions, enabling them to occur at rates significantly higher than
conventional processes, thus enabling smaller-scale FT reactors for GTL
and BTL. The merged company became known as Oxford Catalysts Group
(re-named Velocys from September 2013) and is the only company working in
this field to maintain in-house research in both catalyst and reactor
The company has capitalised on the potential of smaller and more
versatile FT reactors. Existing FT plants are huge, designed for
production levels of around 30,000 barrels of liquid fuel per day (BPD),
and cannot be scaled down economically. They require vast sources of gas,
and so are confined to a small number of locations (primarily in Qatar),
and cost billions of dollars, putting them beyond the reach of all but the
largest companies. Gas associated with oil production is usually wasted;
it is frequently disposed of by flaring (burning) - an environmentally
unfriendly process that is increasingly subject to regulation - or by
re-injection back into the reservoir at considerable expense. According to
the World Bank, 140 billion cubic meters of associated gas - enough to
power Germany - was flared in 2011. An equivalent amount or more was
re-injected simply to avoid flaring. Gas located at remote locations is
often not developed; it is not economically viable to pipe the gas to
where it is needed. Biomass resources such as agricultural and municipal
solid waste are another important potential syngas for the FT process: the
alternative being that they are disposed of as waste. Because biomass
feedstock is not very dense, it is not economic to transport it over long
distances to centralised production facilities. Therefore, BTL plants in
particular need to be relatively small and located near the source of the
feedstock. The technology developed by Oxford Catalysts Group makes it
possible to take advantage of these `wasted resources' to produce liquid
fuels by using the biomass-to-liquids (BTL) or gas-to-liquids (GTL)
processes. An added advantage is that the process creates synthetic clean
fuels free from sulphur and aromatics (unlike those produced in
conventional refinery processes), and can be tailored to produce
high-value hydrocarbons such as jet fuel .
Oxford Catalysts Group has demonstrated that its reactors operate
economically when producing as little as 1,000 BPD of FT products. The
reactors are small enough that modules incorporating the reactors can be
transported in standard-size shipping containers and easily delivered to
where they are needed. This has opened up the market to smaller companies,
smaller gas fields and more remote locations, enabling the distributed
production (production at or near the source of the feedstock) of clean
liquid fuels from stranded and associated gas, both on- and off-shore, and
from biomass. For example, Oxford Catalysts Group has established a
partnership with offshore-facility developers MODEC and the global
engineering firm Toyo Engineering to develop small-scale GTL facilities
based on microchannel reactors and designed for use offshore .
The huge potential of the reactors has generated a high level of
investment in the company. Between 2008 and the end of 2012, the group
achieved revenue of £ 30M and received over £ 60M in investment. £ 30.6M
of the investment was raised in January 2013, at which time Roman
Abramovich invested £ 4.3M in the company, generating press and television
news coverage. Oxford Catalysts' stock increased by around 200% between
June 2012 and June 2013. Throughout this period, the company has been able
to maintain its levels of employment (80 - 90 staff) in the UK and the US
, and has offices in the UK near Oxford and in the USA in Texas and
In May 2012, Oxford Catalysts announced the sale and start-up of a
commercial scale FT reactor at an integrated energy company facility .
The Group's technology has been selected for 4 commercial-scale projects
- A 1,000 BPD commercial GTL plant for Calumet Specialty Product
Partners, L.P., a major US-based producer of speciality petroleum
products, for use in the expansion of Calumet's Karns City, Pennsylvania
- GreenSky London waste-biomass to jet fuel commercial plant, in
partnership with BA. Like many airlines, BA is concerned about carbon
taxes and is, therefore, interested in securing a low-carbon-footprint
fuel based on biomass. The plant will provide enough fuel for BA at City
Airport  - reportedly 50,000 tonnes of jet fuel annually over 10
years equating to $ 500M at today's prices.
- A 2,800 BPD GTL plant being developed by Pinto Energy in Ohio, USA, to
convert low-cost natural gas into high value specialty products
(solvents, lubricants and waxes), as well as ultra clean transportation
In November 2012, Oxford Catalysts Group was named as the preferred
supplier of FT technology for Ventech Engineers LLC, a global leader in
the design and construction of modular refineries. The deal raised £ 1.2M
for the Group, and in April 2013, Ventech placed an order worth $ 8M for
FT reactors for a plant of sufficient capacity to produce approximately
1,400 BPD. This gives an indication of the expected income from the
projects listed above. Kevin Stanley, CEO of Ventech Engineers commented,
`After an extensive search of available technologies we identified Oxford
Catalysts' FT product as the leading offering in the industry for modular
GTL plants' .
Oxford Catalysts Group has established collaborations for the
engineering, manufacturing and deployment of its technology with companies
such as MODEC, Toyo Engineering, Haldor Topose and Ventech. The range of
partnerships reflects the fact that Oxford Catalysts group is regarded as
a leading player in the field of FT technology .
Sources to corroborate the impact
Oxford Catalyst Group (now Velocys) Business webpage, corroborating
details of the technology offered by the company and its performance.
 Details of investment/employment can be corroborated by Oxford
Catalysts Group (Velocys).
May 2012 press release from Oxford Catalysts, confirming sale and
successful start-up of a commercial scale FT Reactor with an anonymous
integrated energy company.
September 2012 press release from Calumet, confirming that it has
commissioned Oxford Catalysts/Velocys to supply FT technology for 1,000
BPD commercial GTL plant for Calumet at its Karns City, Pennsylvania
November 2012 press release from Solena, confirming the selection of
Oxford Catalysts to provide FT technology to GreenSky London, Europe's
first commercial scale sustainable jet fuel facility, being developed in
partnership with British Airways.
Pinto Energy webpage confirming details of the joint project with
Oxford Catalysts (Velocys).
November 2012 press release on the Ventech website confirming the
Ventech/Oxford Catalysts collaboration and the fact that Ventech regards
Oxford Catalysts' FT technology as at the forefront of the GTL industry.
Oxford Catalyst Group (now Velocys) Partners webpage, corroborating
details of the companies with whom the group has active partnerships.