Technology Trends to watch – An Introduction

Which bottom-of-the-barrel upgrading technology should we install to reduce our exposure to the pending changes in bunkerfuels regulations? Should we take advantage of the lower-priced, but more-difficult-to-process, opportunity crudes that are increasingly available? How can we move away from the fuels commodities market in favour of lubricant base oils or petrochemicals, which are commanding higher margins at present?

Of course, the answers vary according to audience. It depends on their configuration, how much complexity they have, the markets they serve, their strategy and so on. But, that they are asking such questions is always a positive sign because it is important to be proactive, to plan for future scenarios, as there is usually a lot of value to be captured – or at risk.

Technology experts from across Shell Global Solutions and our affiliated catalyst company, Criterion Catalysts & Technologies, discuss some of the key technology trends that may influence refiners’ profitability in the years ahead.

You may gain insights that could help you to maintain or enhance your competitiveness. Remember, also, that your optimum solution could be something entirely different. For most problems, there will usually be multiple possible technology solutions.

This is why, at Shell Global Solutions, we work closely with our customers to seek out a broad range of perspectives. We combine our skills and experience to explore the technical options together. And when we do, we are finding that the cutting-edge technologies and catalysts, pioneering process schemes and innovative configurations that you will read about here are increasingly relevant to the situations in which many of our customers find themselves.

Tightening environmental regulations and product specifications

Over the past 20 years or so, technological advances have helped refiners to deliver the cleaner fuels that society demands, and also to curb plant emissions.

But of course, that is not the end of the story. Product quality standards and emissions regulations will continue to tighten even further. Some may even have a disruptive effect on refiners’ strategies. For example, the pending MARPOL Annex VI, which will see a drastic cut in the allowable sulphur content of marine bunker fuels, is widely considered to be one of the biggest challenges facing refiners, as it will require them to make significant investments in technology.

We review the wide range of residue conversion technology options that refiners may need to evaluate.

In addition, we take an in-depth look at some of the most interesting technology solutions in this domain:

Moving away from bulk commodity products to more differentiated products

While global refining capacity continues to grow, the pressure on margins and utilisation intensifies. The reality is that most refiners must discover ways to differentiate to remain competitive – to survive.

Consequently, finding ways to elevate the value of the product slate has become a business-critical assignment. This means that we are seeing a great deal of creativity, with refiners unlocking value in different ways according to their specific situations.

We explore emerging solutions including:

Feedstock and crude flexibility across the regions

In recent years, many refinery schedulers and planners have been changing their crude diets. Refiners in the USA, for example, recently moved away from West African and Latin American crudes in favour of light tight oil (LTO).

This has had a major impact on global oil flows. For example, reduced demand for West African crudes in the USA has led to increased pricing volatility and more frequent opportunities to run these economically in European refineries. Some refiners have also taken increased volumes of lower-priced opportunity crudes from Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

Changing the crude diet can lead to increased problems with corrosion and fouling and may affect the performance of conversion units, with some of the opportunity crudes in particular having very difficult properties. Such reliability problems are often avoidable with appropriate controls on the crude blends, while a well-designed catalyst system can mitigate issues with product quality and relieve constraints on unit performance.

Meanwhile, hydrotreaters and hydrocrackers increasingly have to process non-standard feeds such as light cycle oil and cracked stocks such as heavy coker gas oil and de-asphalted oil. These feeds are high in contaminants, so the catalyst system is the key to the economic upgrading of these feedstocks.

We explore:

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