In the current scenario, refinery-petrochemical integration, incorporating renewables and digitalisation will be the key tools for future business optimisation in the refining and petrochemical industry, predicts Colin Chapman, president, Euro Petroleum Consultants.
All around, we have evidence of the positive impact the refining and petrochemical industry has had on our lives and way of living – from transportation fuels (cars, ships and aeroplanes), to providing energy for homes and different industries, right through to many of the appliances, materials and devices that we use every day – computers, cars, mobile devices, construction materials, packaging – all impossible to imagine without the use of chemical and petrochemical products.
The whole development of civilisation is based on growing energy consumption, and refining is a reliable and affordable energy supplier, namely, a producer of liquid fuels that are easily transported and usable in different ways. The role and importance of the refining and petrochemical industry in how daily human life has evolved cannot and should not be underestimated.
The technological journey
“Although 50 years seems a long time in our industry, many of the original processes remain the foundation blocks of all refineries today. We still see many processes very similar to 50 years ago, for example, delayed coking,” says Colin Chapman, president, Euro Petroleum Consultants, an independent consulting company in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, as well as a producer of specialised annual international conferences and training seminars, focusing on market trends, technological advances and business strategies for the petroleum industry.
“Naturally, energy efficiency and safety of operations have greatly improved. A key area where we have seen tremendous improvement and innovation is in the field of catalysts – for all the major catalytic processes, for example, FCC (fluid catalytic cracking), hydrocracking, catalytic reforming and hydrotreating, and this is an ongoing trend,” Chapman adds.
The size and complexity of individual refineries has vastly increased over the years – with huge refineries such as Reliance in India and also important integrated refining and petrochemical complexes in the Middle East and in Asia.
In today’s business climate, we see that competition in the refining and petrochemical sectors continues to increase – year after year and in every region – and the Middle East is no exception. Companies in the region have continued exploring ways to maximise returns not only by investing on new and existing assets but also through investment in innovation and development activities for long-term growth.
There remains a clear drive and commitment on improving product specifications, increasing conversion, reducing emissions and increasing margins – technologies being at the centre of these developments and advances. We have seen many examples in the Middle East region – with a number of highly complex and highly integrated assets – all primed to achieve top-in-class performance.
“In the past decade, the Middle East refining industry has experienced a real boom period. In 2007, the total oil refining capacity in the region was nearly 7.5 million barrels per day (mbpd). It is now exceeding 9.5mbpd. Speaking of the impact of oil price on the industry, one key trend that we have witnessed is the shift to increased refining and petrochemicals integration – this was extremely significant for the local refiners after the oil price collapse in 2014,” comments Chapman. “We have seen some stability over the past 18 months in oil price; but, as we know, things can change quickly due to market conditions, or geopolitical factors. Current price levels seem to be favourable for both producers and consumers alike, offering a good balance.”
Key innovations from the industry
Pointing out the prime innovations from the refining industry, Chapman states: “In terms of process innovations, I would like to mention firstly the delayed coking technology. It is the most implemented solution when looking in to maximising light petroleum products production. Innovation notably in the field of safety has greatly evolved in this technology, for example, automated slide valves.”
Another important process is hydrocracking. It is also a mature technology to maximise ultra-low sulphur diesel production to cover growing global demand in middle distillates. And finally, the continuous development of FCC technology – traditionally, this process was focused on gasoline production; but today, the importance of this process is increasing in terms of refining and petrochemicals integration. There have also been significant developments in process control, data management, and advanced control systems, which have helped to improve efficiency and safety of operating units.
“Another area is the development of residue hydrocracking options, which is very topical these days. Several companies have developed improved technologies with high conversion of high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO). However, due to the relative lack of operating experience in such processes, there may be certain teething problems with certain critical pieces of equipment,” opines Chapman.
Modularisation is also an important development for optimisation of project implementation. This is particularly important in difficult isolated locations.