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.
Processing Becomes Ever More Complex
Refiners face a dual challenge:
- Most of the easily accessible oil deposits have been depleted over the last 150 years. Oil companies must therefore turn to new types of oil, particularly heavy oil and unconventional oilOil that cannot be extracted using current technology or that entails additional technology or costs to produce... (oil sandsUnconventional oil deposits containing extremely viscous... , shale oilRefers to liquid hydrocarbons extracted from oil shale (see definition) by heating, pyrolysis or hydrogenation. , etc.). These resources contain much more sulfur.
- Finished products required by consumers must be lighter and lighter, as oil nowadays is mostly used as automotive fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... . European Union standards setting the maximum sulfur content have been considerably tightened in recent years. DieselDiesel is the name of an internal combustion engine that works by compression-ignition... can now contain no more than 10 parts per million (ppm)Dimensionless quantity representing 10-6 (1 to 1 million). This proportion can be used for both weight (mass) and volume... of sulfur, compared to 2,000 ppm 20 years ago, a drop of 99.5%.
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.