Let’s talk about strategizing sustainable solutions with Martin Gajdoš
Using hydrogen to decarbonize production. Plastic waste recycling via pyrolysis. Supporting young talent and passing on knowledge to the next generation. Petrochemical giant ORLEN Unipetrol wants to lead the way to a more sustainable future. Will these projects help them green the refinery industry? Find out more in the “Let’s talk about it” interview with ORLEN Unipetrol’s Strategy & Business Analysis Director, guest Martin Gajdoš.
ML (Michael Londesborough): ORLEN Unipetrol is the leading refinery of hydrocarbons in Central Europe, transforming crude oil into our gaseous and liquid, fuels petrochemicals and plastics.
ML: Today with me is Martin Gajdoš, who is the director of strategy and business analysis at ORLEN Unipetrol. Martin, welcome and thank you for coming to “Let's talk about it”.
MG (Martin Gajdoš): Hello, Michael.
ML: I'm going to start with a simple question: what is the role of ORLEN Unipetrol in society, and why does it have to change?
MG: Very good question. ORLEN Unipetrol is the guardian and the custodian of resources that are available to us, that are all around. We help to reshape them into a form that could be used by our customers and that could be further used for generating the solutions that people are seeking - be it transport, construction or packaging. So, this is our role - we sort of provide the solutions to people in various forms.
ML: You see ORLEN Unipetrol as a custodian of this incredibly important resource, the hydrocarbons.
ML: And you're looking to nurture that relationship, that sort of guardianship with its users… So, where are we going? What sort of trajectory are we on?
MG: We like to think about our role as it is about fueling the society, fueling the innovation. Where we're going, we're constantly seeking solutions, we're constantly trying to pile up the knowledge that is already huge to humankind. Just an example: 10% of all the staff and professionals in the whole ORLEN Unipetrol group work on a daily basis, either in research or applied research. They try to understand the ways how technology operates and also are trying to find ways how to translate that knowledge into solutions and business model so that it's providing viable solutions, it's appealing to our customers and clients and that it is sustainable and considerate to the environment in which we operate.
ML: I see. ORLEN Unipetrol is providing us traditionally with fueling our businesses, our transportation and enabling all sorts of innovative new materials, whether it be plastics, petrochemicals. However, there is, of course, a concern. I think that concerns become more and more apparent about the pollution aspects of hydrocarbons and pollution associated with plastic waste. So are these the main drivers which are, as you mentioned, 10% of employees now are looking to provide new solutions? Are these the main drivers that are causing change?
MG: Well, maybe we could call them drivers, but also we could call them symptoms, because they are symptoms of the ways the business has been done up until now. At the end of the day, these are the hydrocarbons that have been, in some form, stored in the environment and transformed into shape that, unfortunately, has today very little value for the users. What we're trying to do is to find solutions and to find ways to design the solution that we're providing so that we are producing a product that could be used again as a resource, because, at the end of the day, these are molecules reshaped and stored in something else, which we'd like to reprocess and get back to the loop.
ML: When you're talking about solutions, you've used the word on a couple of occasions - the loop. So, let's talk about these loops. If I hear the word loop, I’m thinking of a circular approach to streams or flows of resources. So maybe you can tell me a bit about what are the current flows of resources going in and out of ORLEN Unipetrol? And what we can expect in the future?
MG: Today, the inputs to the ORLEN Unipetrol are hydrocarbons. - either in the form of crude, oil extracted from the rock, the bed or the place somewhere under the surface, or coal again, hydrocarbons, stored under the surface, plus energies. At the output we have polymers plastics and we have refinery products, mostly fuels, to make sure that transportation is viable. So, these are transformed hydrocarbons. When we're talking linear versus circular way, from the beginning, the resources were treated in a linear way. There was a resource, it was somehow utilized in the process. Then, there was a waste by-product or externality and it was dumped, because it had no further use. Well, in the broader sense, we could say that these were also circular, because the molecules are somewhere there, but they're not doing exactly what we would like them to do…
ML: Right. They are a sort of decomposing slowly and...
MG: …they contaminate the environment. Thus, the circle is really huge - for a normal person, it's millions of years to transform these molecules back to the way they were stored. So what we're trying to do is to seek the way how to make the circles smaller, so that they are apparent to generations, even to individual users and they match the lifespan of the product. When we're talking linear in the future, again at the input to refinery, these will be hydrocarbons, but we'd like these hydrocarbons to be more resourced from today's waste - either be it waste plastics, used oils, waste biomass or communal waste.
ML: The picture you're painting for me is that ORLEN Unipetrol is this transformer. It’s transforming crude hydrocarbons into useful, refined petrochemicals fuels and plastics. Previously they would be sold, and that's the end, whereas now you're looking to go downstream, find where these products lose value, become a waste and look to recuperate that waste and put it back into the input flow of the hydrocarbons.
MG: Yes, that’s absolutely right. We may also think of it as, in the past, we would reshape the molecules into the product that the customer would buy and use. To successfully accomplish the transformation, we'd like the products and solution to be perceived as landed to the customer who use them. When the customer has no further use for them, they would be returned back to us for further reprocessing.
ML: That's a huge promise. Essentially, you're promising, as a company, to increase your responsibility sphere, that your responsibility will not stop at the at the point of sale, but will continue, you maintain an ownership of those molecules. And when they become waste, you're willing to take them back and reuse or rejuvenate their value. That's quite a proposal and a solution. Tell me then a bit how you intend to do that. What are the plans, the projects that are going to enable ORLEN Unipetrol to do that?
MG: As I mentioned, there are a lot of professionals that their daily job is to seek the solutions, and not only find the solution, but make sure they're technically feasible, economically sustainable and they have as few negative externalities as possible. It's starts with the very resurgent and seeking for solution, then deploying them and making sure they are also understood by the users. Because I would say, if you have a great idea but you're the only person in the world that knows about that, it's probably worthless. As you said, we're trying to zoom out, extend the scope of what we understand is our activity and responsibility and bring this knowledge and experience also to a greater public - to students, other business leaders, etc.
ML: Okay, you're looking to nurture talent. You're looking to internally, as a company, find innovative solutions, to expand your responsibility as a company to larger scales. But I'm interested in a couple of some definite projects, which enable that change. Some things that come to mind are, for example, hydrogen, liquid biofuels and also plastic paralysis. Maybe, could you tell me a bit about those?
MG: Well, hydrogen is a very powerful resource, a very powerful energy carrier. We see a big future for this substance, not because we already produce it and use it in chemical processes, but we truly believe that the low carbon hydrogen will be the future source of energy, which could be decentralized, stored and used whenever users need it. We can talk about advanced biofuels, which are reshaping things that are waste today – communal waste, bio-waste, waste from agricultural production - and transform it to fuels, making it available for the transport. When you mentioned pyrolysis, it's a way how to transform the polymers, the plastics, that are not suitable for their intended application. It’s way how to purify them, transform them again to a product that could be used without down cycling, degrading their characteristics and without being afraid that they will end this waste at the end of the lifetime, even in several spins.
ML: Okay, so several projects which will ultimately lead then to a greater efficiency of our use of hydrocarbons eventually and close several loops. You mentioned then these belong to several solutions that you're producing. You said that, of course, these solutions are worthless unless they're known about and acted upon. So maybe you can comment about how you intend to resolve this? How do you talk about these solutions and how do you put them into action?
MG: We're not only trying to promote that knowledge, but we're trying to identify also talents from a very young age. We cooperate with primary schools through the foundation. We help students at the secondary schools - we have various scholarships programs, events focused on promoting chemistry and how fascinating it is. We also cooperate with universities - with young scholars and young talents. So, we're trying to source the talent all the way from the childhood to adulthood, making sure that we're not only sharing our ideas and ways how to do things better, but we also involve younger generations, because this transformation is about making sure that experience can be handed over between generations and we share the experience and we learn from the past.
ML: Is there an organic sense that this new talent can have an influence on development of strategy for the company?
MG: Absolutely, yes. There are several very good examples of people who joined ORLEN Unipetrol as their first job. They spent their whole career and grew with the company, because they were coming up with ideas, they were trying to make things possible. So, we're encouraging all those who are professionals in various fields - not only chemistry, physics and energy but also in economics, sociology - because all these all the knowledge, when it adds together, that's what really makes things possible.
ML: You’re talking about the sort of integration of many disciplines - economic, scientific, social disciplines in the generation of new strategy to take the company forward. But Martin, I believe, we as a society, have high expectations from you. We need to be fueled, we need the energy resources and at the same time we want a sustainable planet. How can you see what is going to be ORLEN Unipetrol like in 10, 20 years? How can you, as a company, achieve this?
MG: Michael, we've talked about a lot of topics. If I summarize on that, the world around us is definitively changing and ORLEN Unipetrol should act as a proactive leader in that change and should guide the society, because we have the resources, the capacities and the skills to do that. We should guide the society through that change, make sure that the changes are inclusive - that we include all the talent that we have, that we share the knowledge which is being compiled. That we make sure we produce the hydrocarbons, the plastics and the fuels in a sustainable way and we're able to get them back to the loop and reprocess them again to make sure that there's no waste, but there's just plenty for everyone and the ways we do our business and we provide the solutions are understandable, predictable and sustainable that everybody benefits from them. There are a lot of projects that we are working on currently, for example: low emission and green hydrogen, pyrolysis of plastics, etc. All these things in 20 years, I'd be very happy to see that they're not just a matter that colleagues, in R&D especially, deal with, but they are incorporated to the ways we do our business as usual and they are available to the greater public.
ML: Martin, thank you very much for your comments about this custodian manner in which you're looking after the hydrocarbons. I wish you good luck in the implementation of all these schemes and innovative projects. Thank you for joining us here in “Let's talk about it”. Before you leave, I have a small gift - this wonderful t-shirt “Let's talk about it”, which you can enjoy wearing…