Innovation needs curiosity and discipline
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Innovation expert Andreas Leitner on innovation at OMV.
OMV plans to be a CO2-neutral company by 2050. To achieve this, it needs to reinvent itself and its business models. So, transformation is the order of the day – not only at OMV, but in the entire oil, gas and chemicals industry. We talked to Andreas Leitner, OMV Senior Vice President for Innovation & Technology, about what innovative spirit means to him, the role that innovation plays in the company – and where used cooking oil, plastic waste and discipline come in.
Why is innovation such an important topic for OMV right now?
Andreas Leitner (AL): We are even rethinking the business model itself – from a linear business model to a circular economy. This is primarily about meeting our climate targets and reducing the carbon footprint of our products, but it is also about maintaining our license to operate, i.e. the social standing of OMV.
Our industry is facing a transformation of historic proportions. It can only succeed through innovation in every business area of our Group.
Has innovation always been such a central topic at OMV?
AL: OMV has always been innovative, otherwise the Group would not have been so profitable for so long. I also see a strong entrepreneurial spirit – by that I mean the will to improve things, to be curious and to achieve strategies and goals. Especially in the area of process optimization, we have had a high level of skill and a great deal of know-how in the company for years, and we are also experts in operating very complicated chemical processes safely. We are now also reaping the benefits of this in various innovation projects.
Can you give us concrete examples?
AL: One example in the energy sector would be geothermal energy. In 1983, our engineers succeeded in drilling the deepest well in Europe at the time, 8,553 meters deep. So we have a lot of know-how in the field of drilling – except that in this case we are not looking for oil and gas, but for hot water.
Or our ReOil® project at the Schwechat Refinery, where we convert plastic waste that is not suitable for mechanical recycling into crude oil and then send the monomers back to Borealis as feedstock. This chemical recycling process basically uses the same and similar competencies as our conventional petrochemical assets. The exciting thing is that we are developing our skills in the process: From processing liquids and gases to solids like plastic waste.
What about sustainable alternatives to conventional fuels?
AL: One important project is Sustainable Aviation Fuels. In what’s known as co-processing, we produce paraffin using regionally sourced used cooking oil, which not only reduces emissions in air travel, but also has to meet the highest quality standards. With SAF, CO2 emissions can be reduced by more than 80 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. We will soon be installing an innovative, already patented process with our brand new Glycerin2Propanol pilot plant in Schwechat. Glycerin is ideal for use in the production of biofuel: It is a waste product, one that is readily available and not in competition with food production. By the way: Unleaded petrol was first available at our filling stations in Austria in 1984.
In the course of the year, a new 10 MW electrolysis plant will also go into operation in Schwechat. With it, we will produce green hydrogen ourselves for the first time, thereby saving up to 15,000 metric tons of CO2 annually.
How mature are these projects?
AL: All the projects mentioned already have a technology maturity level to be implemented predominantly in 2nd half of 2023. The ReOil® plant, for example, will have a capacity of 16,000 tons per year, then in 2027 the capacity will be increased to 200,000 tons per year. SAF production already started in 2022 and is expected to increase to 700,000 tons per year by 2030. In Norway, we have just completed a joint project with Aker BP: A license for CO2 capture and storage on the Norwegian continental shelf. CCS makes safe and permanent storage of CO2 possible and is an important pillar in our strategy to become climate neutral by 2050.
What does the path from idea to innovation look like?
AL: When it comes to innovation, it is important not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk. In addition, the innovation funnel must always be well filled. Because many good ideas are simply not realizable. It can be very painful if an idea is not pursued and a project has to be stopped for commercial or technical reasons. You have to discuss and evaluate the projects regularly in a sober and data-oriented way – and honestly admit it when something doesn’t work.
What promotes the spirit of innovation?
AL: My experience has shown me that flat hierarchies promote innovative thinking. At the same time, a strong leadership team is an important prerequisite, as well as a tolerance for mistakes. Incompetence, on the other hand, is not to be tolerated. Things can go wrong, but you must not repeat mistakes, instead you have to learn from them. Innovation also needs a good dose of curiosity and openness to experimentation, but with a certain discipline and a clear focus on what you want to learn from it.
Can OMV manage this transformation all by itself?
AL: As mentioned, the entire industry is undergoing a fundamental transformation process. This evolution is almost unmanageable for a standalone company in terms of both skill and capital. A portfolio of partnerships along the entire value chain is indispensable, from large companies with the appropriate capital to small, agile start-ups. As a partner of Verbund X Accelerator, we have a central interface to start-ups. In doing so, it is important to always see each other as equals and to stay flexible. Along the way, we get to broaden our horizons and meet talents who help us think of new approaches to solutions. After all, you have to remember that many technologies and areas are still very young and finding the relevant expertise is not easy.
Open innovation is another important topic. With the digital OMV Sphere tool, we have created a low-threshold way to get in touch with us.
So does OMV have what it takes to master the great transformation?
AL: Yes, we have what it takes. Becoming climate neutral by 2050 is a great but challenging goal for OMV. We have a highly qualified team, both among the staff in the operational assets such as the refineries and plants and among our colleagues business areas and the supporting functions. But it is not enough just to maintain our skills and competencies; in the spirit of innovation, we also have to continuously educate ourselves and acquire new technologies. In the energy sector, for example, we do this with the UPskilling initiative. Together with our employees and external partners, we will successfully master the transformation. It won’t be a walk in the park, but with our current portfolio we are on the right track.