Building on the success of mercury capture to drive change in the petroleum industry
13 Apr 2023



​This case study is part of a set reflecting the impact of ISIS science reported as part of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021).

Gas refinery



REF Case Study: Building on the success of mercury capture to drive change in the petroleum industry
Principal Investigator: John Holbrey, Chris Hardacre
Institution: Queens University Belfast
Funding: Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS)
Company involved: Petronas​

The Challenge

A major challenge in producing hydrocarbon fuel is the removal of impurities that pose significant health and safety issues as well as contaminating products. Mercury contamination is a particular problem with natural gas. In addition to its well-known problematic health and environmental effects, mercury damages industrial facilities through corrosion/embrittlement, and is a strong catalyst poison. Current technologies used to remove mercury have significant issues around efficiency, the removal of all types of mercury species, robustness when other contaminants are present in the feed and the ability to deal with fluctuating mercury levels.

The HycaPure™ ionic liquid mercury adsorbent, was developed by PETRONAS and the QUILL Research Centre at Queen's University of Belfast, to address this problem. This technology removes the full range of elemental, inorganic and organic mercury species from gas streams in a single treatment at up to four times the adsorption capacity of conventional adsorbents.

Evidence of Impact

A full scale commercial pilot using the technology was launched in February 2012 and was able to demonstrate that the HycaPure™ mercury removal unit (MRU) met all plant specifications and had three times the lifetime of previous commercial alternatives. Since the technology demonstrated robust performance in PETRONAS' dry gas processing plants, work was carried out to extend the technology so that it could also be with other more challenging streams. PETRONAS researchers have now successfully designed variants with different fundamental ionic liquid cores, based on the underpinning research conducted at QUILL, and supported by further collaborative work initiated over the period 2012-2017 during which time two PETRONAS staff undertook PhD research at QUILL and QUILL PDRAs undertook secondments with PETRONAS, facilitating knowledge transfer and training. In the FY2014, two advanced plants using more advanced Hycapure™ approaches were commissioned in Malaysia for treatment of other feed materials, one at the Onshore Gas Terminal in Kerteh for liquid condensate and the other for wet gas at the liquid natural gas facility in Bintulu.

By 2017, thirteen full industrial Hycapure™ systems had been installed in PETRONAS processing plants. This constitutes a huge processing capacity, a single processing train for dry natural gas will typically process over 2.5M tonnes per year.

In addition, the impact of this work on the company has been much broader, the ongoing research links between QUILL and Petronas have provided a mechanism for the company to begin to move the focus of their research away from traditional oil and gas, as evidenced by their new £2.4M joint programme on innovative low carbon technologies.

The role of ISIS

QUILL was the first research centre to focus on the development of ionic liquids (liquid salts) and their applications in green chemistry. It 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. Working in collaboration with the Disordered Materials Group at ISIS, the team was the first to demonstrate how neutron scattering could be used to directly visualise ionic liquid structure, linking atomic and bulk properties.

ISIS Instrument(s): Sandals

ISIS Technique(s): Small Angle Neutron Scattering


Small angle neutron diffraction from 1,3-dimethylimidazolium chloride, C Hardacre, JD. Holbrey, SEJ McMath, DT Bowron, and AK Soper, J. Chem. Phys., 2003, 118, 272, DOI: 10.1063/1.1523917 (cited 416 times, WoS, March 2021).



Contact: Fletcher, Sara (STFC,RAL,ISIS)