The appetite for residue upgrading through the application of ebullated-bed hydrocracking is growing around the world, as it is a well-established, commercially proven technology offering very high conversion levels and can help, therefore, to minimise the amount of bottoms sent to the bunker fuel pool. Moreover, the attractiveness of ebullated-bed hydrocracking as a technology solution for refiners has been enhanced by the recent trend for greater vacuum residue (VR) feed processing flexibility, which leads to improved refinery crude diversification economics.

Ebullated-bed hydrocracking is a long-established technology that can provide conversion of up to 80% (524°C+) of very refractive VR feeds with high contaminant metals and Conradson carbon residue (CCR) contents. Since ebullated-bed hydrocracking was commercialised in the 1960s, 16 units have been built. In the last four years, its popularity has increased significantly; another six units are planned to be online by 2020.

This shift is due to both proven design upgrades and the improved crude flexibility now achievable. The first-generation units operated on crude slates very much in line with design and focused mainly on hydrodesulphurisation. In the 1990s, unit operation shifted towards higher bottoms conversion and with it came the advent of the sediment (foulant) control era.

Higher levels of sediment are formed at higher conversion levels owing to greater destabilisation of the VR feed matrix known as SARA (saturates, aromatics, resins and asphaltenes). Unit cycle lengths were thus exclusively determined by the degree of sediment-induced fouling of key downstream hardware such as separators, heaters, fractionators and exchangers. This cycle-limiting phenomenon thus constrained the feed processing flexibility of the units when high bottoms conversion was the key operational objective.

Now, however, the state of the art is such that many units are successfully operating with a variable crude diet while maintaining a high on-stream factor. Furthermore, the current lower price crude market environment is providing the opportunity for more ebullated-bed unit operators to process VR feeds derived from a crude blend featuring the design crude as the major component and one or two other compatible crudes as minor components. In some cases, this has provided higher conversion performance through the net lower sediment formation tendency of the blended crude.

Sediment continues to affect unit reliability adversely, but, by drawing on the wealth of operational and process experience that has accumulated over the years and the latest-generation, sediment control catalyst technology, it is possible to mitigate an ebullated-bed hydrocracker’s propensity for fouling sufficiently and thus meet or exceed target cycle lengths when diversifying the crude mix.

This requires proper management of crude changes, effective unit monitoring and application of best practices, but it can be a key profit-generating opportunity. This is exemplified by an ebullated-bed hydrocracker operator that utilises its unit to drive the refinery’s crude diversification economic model. This operator recently successfully increased the unit cycle length from one to two years in an operation where the crude slate changes every two to three days.

The catalyst employed plays a key role in maximising unit on-stream factor, as it is the first line of defence in controlling sediment. Criterion Catalysts & Technologies (Criterion) has made several significant advances in this area using a customised catalyst development approach linked to crude type.

For instance, it has commercialised the TEX series of catalysts that exhibits better sediment control combined with higher conversion activity for processing VR feeds derived from Middle Eastern crudes. As fresh catalyst is added on a daily basis, it can also be viewed as a process variable whereby higher amounts of catalysts are added when processing higher-sediment-forming feeds or when operating at higher bottoms conversion levels.

It is advisable for operators considering adjusting their operating window to work closely in the early stages with the unit licensor and the catalyst provider. Changing the feed changes the SARA matrix, which can lead to cycle-limiting fouling. Both the licensors and the catalyst providers have commercial and pilot plant data that enable them to rank the fouling behaviour of feeds derived from different crudes accurately.

Criterion draws on its large database in order to advise on which crudes refiners could blend in and which they should avoid. These data are also key inputs for its SEDEX model, which predicts the change in sediment level as a function of crude type or when blending crudes.

Changing other parameters, such as conversion, throughput or temperature, can also lead to enhanced rates of fouling. But, again, by working with the licensor and the catalyst supplier, substantial manoeuvrability can often be unlocked to optimise unit performance in a balanced fashion.

Grassroots Designs

Ebullated-bed hydrocrackers are highly customised according to a refiner’s specific objectives and there has been a great deal of innovation in the latest grassroots designs. Earlier-generation designs were more closely integrated with downstream fluidised catalytic cracking units and the key products required further upgrading to meet the required specifications. In contrast, the design of newer-generation units features an integrated hydrocracker–high-pressure hydrotreater in the same high-pressure loop. This enables direct production of high-value transportation fuels such as ultra-low-sulphur diesel from VR.

Shell currently operates both types of ebullated-bed unit licensed technologies: Axens’ H-OilRC and Chevron Lummus Global’s LC-FINING technology. Additionally, Criterion has more than 40 years’ experience in ebullated-bed catalysts and currently supplies customised catalysts to both H-OilRC and LC-FINING units.

Graph shows TEX Series of Catalysts
Figure 1: Criterion is market leading in ebullated-bed catalysts, not least because of the advances made in the area of sediment control, as shown here for the TEX series of catalysts.


Combating Sediment Using a Customised Approach To Catalyst Development

In 1994, Criterion became the first company to introduce an ebullated-bed residue hydrocracking catalyst specifically developed to control sediment formation.

Since then, Criterion has made significant advances and commercialised a series of catalysts that exhibit better sediment control and show higher conversion activity. Figure 1 shows the development of the TEX series of catalysts, which have been customised primarily for processing VR feeds from Middle Eastern crudes. These have proved to be very effective in upgrading notoriously difficult feeds, including VR from Urals and Mayan crude oils, and in the conversion of bitumen to synthetic crudes.

Criterion uses what it calls the 4Cs approach to residue upgrading, which helps to provide the inherent robustness required when the operation moves away from design, such as in the case of varying the crude slate. It is very important to be clear on the chemistry required: removal of metals, sulphur, CCR and asphaltenes.

The composition of the feed is key, especially the nature and behaviour of the SARA matrix with conversion level. In addition, the operating conditions of the unit, including constraints, have a large bearing. By getting to grips with these variables on an individual unit basis, the sediment control catalyst can be customised to meet the individual refiner’s needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Ebullated-bed hydrocracking offers high VR conversion levels and has seen a significant increase in popularity based on upgraded designs.
  • In the past, this long-established process was characterised by low crude flexibility, but the state of the art is now such that many units are successfully operating with a variable crude diet while maintaining a high on-stream factor.
  • Leveraging latest-generation customised catalysts and technology, operational and process experience, and best practices can also help refiners to adjust conversion or other parameters without incurring a significant cycle length penalty.

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