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Maximising Refinery Profit Margins: The Role of Process Engineering

by Guest on May 15, 2017


When refinery operators observe issues with the column operations such as column weeping and flooding, they usually have to resort to the past experiences to temporarily relieve the situation. (Image: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images)
When refinery operators observe issues with the column operations such as column weeping and flooding, they usually have to resort to the past experiences to temporarily relieve the situation. (Image: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images)

The complexity of the refining business is growing everyday with new markets, new feedstocks and new regulations. Additionally, refineries worldwide are facing declining profit margins. Process simulation technologies have advanced substantially to help refineries on a broad range of processes spanning operational troubleshooting, crude selection, refinery planning, profit margin analysis, turnaround planning and more.

While the world of crude oil refining has witnessed significant developments in process simulation, many refiners are still leaving money on the table by not taking full advantage of the growing range and sophistication of process optimisation technology. To understand how a refinery and its process engineers can better use process simulation to improve the profit margins of the company, it is important to consider its level of maturity in leveraging process optimisation technology.

The maturity levels can range from zero maturity where a refinery does not yet have a culture of using process simulation technology to support its operations, all the way to full maturity level where refineries employ refinery-wide process simulation models in a single flowsheet. The process engineers in these ‘full maturity’ refineries offer valuable insights into the planning and strategy divisions by bringing a more accurate assessment of profit margins for strategic capital project evaluations, operational improvements, and more.

An inevitable element of a refinery’s journey to higher levels of technological maturity is its partnership with technology providers who can equip them with state-of-the-art technology and industry best practices. The following technological applications described are critical by all means for refineries, which intend to grow the technological maturity in order to achieve and maintain the best-in-class operational efficiency.

Heat exchanger maintenance and monitoring

Since refineries run continuous process operations at low profit margins, any operational inefficiencies or outages have a huge impact on the bottom line. Heat exchangers are a critical part of the refining process and play a crucial role in determining energy efficiency. Refineries employ a number of heat exchangers of varied types, and the heat exchanger network layout can impact fuel consumption quite considerably.

The nature of process streams in a refinery causes frequent fouling of heat exchangers, reducing the effectiveness. This also reduces energy utilisation and increases fuel consumption. To avoid this, heat exchangers must undergo routine cleaning and maintenance. The challenge for refineries is in determining the right time to take out each of the heat exchangers for maintenance so that profits are not affected. Rigorous simulation of heat exchanger unit operations within the broader process model allow refineries to determine the fouling level in each of the units and the economic impact these have on the overall process. This helps refineries set up a prioritised maintenance schedule for the heat exchanger network, designed to sustain refinery profits.

Disparate tools used for process simulation and heat exchanger design can also lead to challenges for the engineers. Most often, the links between these tools are non-existent or weak as these are often supplied by different companies, requiring users to manually enter data back and forth. This process is inefficient and time consuming, and as a result, too tedious for refineries to pursue.
To overcome these challenges, refiners need a solution with seamless integration between process simulator and heat exchanger design and rating tools. This enables rigorous simulation of heat exchanger operations within the broader process simulation model.

The heat exchanger design tool must also be able to simulate all major heat exchanger types used in the refining industry. Furthermore, the solution should allow process engineers to easily develop and integrate rigorous simulation for their heat exchanger units as part of the refinery flowsheet without leaving their familiar process simulation environment.

Many companies are already utilising this type of technology. For example, Hindustan Petroleum’s refinery in Mumbai, India, saved over US$250,000 annually. Savings include a great deal of the plant engineer’s time, and an improvement in the heat exchanger maintenance schedule. INEOS refinery in Lavera, France, reported a savings of US$4 million annually by employing a heat exchanger fouling monitoring application.

Refineries which have little to no maturity level, stand to gain from considerable improvements in the profit margins by integrating solutions that enable simulation tools and plant data to be brought together and made available to plant engineers via a more familiar interface such as Microsoft Excel. This way, plant engineers can create well-informed maintenance schedules and set in place a more proactive maintenance culture.


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