Main content | back to top
Seeing the bigger picture
Today’s global energy system is hugely complex and fast changing. It comprises numerous energy sources, technologies, stakeholders and end-users, with huge regional variations and complex webs of interdependency.
Take, for instance, the boom in unconventional gas in the USA. Its effects have reached far beyond the shores of North America because it has freed supplies of liquefied natural gas for use in other parts of the world. Now, we are seeing operators in the USA taking advantage of low-cost natural gas to generate the hydrogen that they require to upgrade heavy oils, including tight oil.
Meanwhile, other regions are also keen to exploit their own indigenous resources in the most cost-effective and environmentally responsible way. Technology is often key. In China, for instance, coal gasification technology offers a compelling route to producing syngas for conversion to chemical products.
Feeds, however, are not getting any easier to process. The Middle Eastern gas fields that have highly complex gas compositions are a case in point; these cannot be readily monetised owing to the presence of impurities such as carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), mercaptans (RSH) and mercury. And the gas processing plants designed to remove these contaminants are subject to increasingly stringent emission limits. Nevertheless, there are examples of organisations that have found ways to meet their environmental mandate, such as Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) at Yibal Khuff.
The challenges facing refiners are not dissimilar. To be competitive, many are processing discounted crudes, which typically have a high sulphur content. During the refining process, this is converted to H2S and sulphur dioxide (SO2) but special precautions must be taken to limit the atmospheric release of these gases.
Several countries, most notably China, India and Russia, are embarking on programmes for cleaner transportation fuels. As Europe, the USA and Japan have already been down that path, their experience should be exploited. So, expect to see hydroprocessing unit revamps along with new hydrotreater and hydrocracker installations, combined with solvent deasphalting units or cokers.
Times have been tough for refiners,
but there are numerous success stories involving companies that continued to invest in upgrading their assets through the economic downturn, and who are now reaping the rewards.
There has been a lot of interest lately in building highly efficient, mega-scale refineries that use the latest technology and have a large conversion capacity.
But we would always advise caution to an executive considering such a development, as this is rarely the optimum solution.
Refiners can often achieve better payback with less risk by improving or upgrading their existing assets.
There are usually many low-hanging fruit they can recover.
Shell is perhaps the only technology licensor that has technology and expertise in the three main hydrocarbon-based energy sources: crude oil, gas and coal. This can be useful when, for instance, governments are exploring their energy diversification options or when investor projects involve multiple feeds. For example, a project to develop a gas processing plant could benefit from an integrated plan to handle the associated condensate. Seeing the bigger picture can help to make sense of the highly complex global energy system in which we all operate.
Global General Manager for Gas Processing and
Gasification, Shell Global Solutions International BV
Vice President, Refining and Chemical Licensing, Shell Global
Solutions International BV