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The Sulphur Paradox in "PTQ Outlook", Q1 2011

PTQ Outlook, Q1 2011

Refiners globally will continue to face numerous challenges in the coming year, and principal among them is “the sulphur paradox” - or the increasing need to manage sulphur to help increase margins, while simultaneously meeting legislative requirements.

As the global population rises, we can expect limits on sulphur in retail and transportation fuels to become more stringent as the demand for these resources increases.

At a time when the economy is lagging and many refiners are short of cash, the need to meet or exceed changing product specifications will be an undoubted concern for refinery managers. For example, the economy in Russia remains extremely tight and, despite financial constraints, refiners must be in position to meet Euro III transportation fuel regulations beginning in January 2011 and prepared for Euro V by 2015.  Also while local product specifications need to be taken into account, export markets can bring different demands. 

With the Middle East now providing significant product to Europe, refiners must comply with 10 wppm sulphur product specifications even when it is not required for their own domestic market. In developing markets, tighter specifications for motor gasoline (mogas) or gasoil will also be imposed increasingly.

To confound the issue, with insufficient “easy” oil and gas to meet demand on a global scale, refineries will have to process heavier,  more sour crudes. As such, during the next five years and beyond refiners must look forward to find more viable solutions.  Sour crudes have greater sulphur content that after conversion comes out as more hydrogen sulphide (H2S), sulphur oxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and CO2 during the refining process. 

One solution to this challenge can be found in the advanced hydroprocessing technologies which process heavier, more sour crudes into high-value transportation fuels.  Additionally, depending on country emission requirements, minimum amounts of SOx and NOx may be released via the stack.  These hydroprocessing technologies can be combined with gas treating/absorption solutions to help cap these emissions. 

In response to the sulphur management issues that are arising within the industry, Shell Global solutions, Criterion Catalysts & Technologies and other partners offer The Sulphur Technology Platform, a single source for integrated sulphur solutions to meet emission and product requirements and facilitating the processing of heavier, more sour crudes. This sulphur technology platform uses deep flash technology that cuts deeper into the bottom of the barrel, resulting in higher vacuum distillate yields compared to conventional vacuum units. 

These integrated solutions also include effective revamps, such as hydrocracking units converted to process resid feedstocks, optimised hydroprocessing of gasoline, kerosene and diesel components to low sulphur products and gas treating technologies to remove refinery emissions.

Ultimately, innovative  process and catalyst technology solutions are required for processing heavier, more sour crudes while meeting emission and clean transportation fuels specifications, specifically in relation to sulphur (although benefits in relation to other emissions are often achieved at the same time). The key is managing sulphur levels by employing hydro-processing, conversion and sulphur recovery technologies.

By using integrated technology solutions to optimise sulphur management strategies, we can face today’s refining challenges head on.