Feature Report: Refining, a Sector Undergoing Profound Changes

3 items of content in this feature report

Going in depth


Refining, a Production Undergoing Profound Change

Conditions are difficult for European refining (See Close-Up: "Refining in France: An Expert Eye"). Because of changing market trends and regulations, refiners must upgrade and adapt their facilities. This requires substantial financial investment.

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The distillate hydrocracker (DHC) at the Normandy refinery converts more heavy oil into light products. © P.BOULEN / TOTAL

Processing Becomes Ever More Complex

Refiners face a dual challenge:  

In response, refineries need to introduce more efficient processing methods.

Upgrading European Refineries

To survive, refineries must change quickly.

In the United Kingdom, new hydrodesulfurization (sulfur recovery)A refining process to sharply reduce the sulfur content of fuels such as jet and diesel... units (HDS) at the Lindsey Oil Refinery will be able to process up to 70% high-sulfur crudes, against 20% today. The facility will also be able to produce more diesel.

The current trend is to concentrate refining and petrochemical activities on the same site.

In Germany, the HDS unit at the Leuna refinery will improve the supply of ultra low sulfur heating oil to the domestic market.

In France, new plants have been opened or are being upgraded. For example, Total built a distillate hydrocracker (DHC)Unit that performs a refining process in which hydrogen is used to convert certain cuts... at the Normandy complex. The hydrogen-based technology helps to produce lighter cuts from heavy oil. For the same quantity of crude oilOil that has not been refined. , the DHC provides 8% more low-sulfur diesel. The total price tag for the unit was about €550 million.

Improving Industrial Risk and Environmental Impact Management

Apart from this significant investment, refinery facilities are regularly upgraded to improve safety and integrity. Plants are shut down every five years on average. During these months-long turnarounds, they are dismantled, thoroughly examined, upgraded and more. Processes and practices are also modified to meet environmental standards regarding greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions, discharges to the natural environment, odors and other areas.

Integrated Global Complexes

To further boost refinery efficiency and competitiveness, the trend now is to develop industrial complexes. The idea is to integrate refining and petrochemical activities on the same site, near the feedstock and, ideally, close to growing markets.

99.5% is the reduction in sulfur content imposed by the European Union (E.U.)

For example, Esso has turned its Antwerp refinery in Belgium into a full-fledged petrochemical undertaking. This plant now produces liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)Combination of light hydrocarbons produced partly from the refining of crude oil (about 40%) and partly from the processing of natural gas.. , gasoline, kerosene, diesel, fuel oil and also solvents and asphaltAt ambient temperature, a sticky, black and highly viscous or solid mixture of heavy hydrocarbons... . In Pernis in the Netherlands, Shell has combined over 60 different plants on the same site, with various refining capacities. In France, Total has combined the Normandy refinery and the Total Petrochemicals France plant in Gonfreville l’Orcher in the same organization. The goal is to improve the energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system... of both sites.

Investing for the Future

By 2030, demand for lighter, low-sulfur products will extend to all consumer countries. In the next few years, the refining business will therefore continue to change.

Refineries will also need to be able to process new feedstock, such as foodstuffs and plant matter (biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... ). Regulatory requirements regarding energy efficiency, water management (see sidebar) and greenhouse gas emissions will become even tougher in the future.

Oil refineries use about 1.5 liters of water for each liter of fuel produced. This might seem a lot, but between 300 and 600 liters of water are required to manufacture 1 kilogram of steel.

Oil refineries recycle the water that supplies their boilers, steam generators and cooling systems. The used water then goes through a purification process (oil removal, sedimentation, filtration, physicochemical and biological treatment) before it is discharged.