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Worldwide Refinery Processing Review (Quarterly Issues)

Publication date:2Q 2013
Item#: B21302

Hydrocracking and Catalytic reforming


Hydrocracking (HC) is utilized in refineries to upgrade a variety of feeds that range from coker naphtha to various heavy gas oils and residual fractions into lighter molecules that have higher average volatility and improved economic value. Hydrocracking works to improve the quality of the initial feedstock by removing N and S and increasing the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio. With the ongoing EU debt crisis and developing economies in China and India undergoing slower than expected growth, refiners have been forced to adjust operations to meet a number of emerging goals: increasing diesel production, processing heavy and highly contaminated crudes, and meeting stringent environmental emissions limitations and product specifications. The hydrocracking process has emerged as the primary diesel producer in many refinery configurations, and as environmental regulations on transportation fuels continue to tighten, the hydrocracker will be one of the tools available to refiners to meet new product specifications. Unlike FCCU processes, hydrocrackers can effectively yield ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) streams whereas middle-distillate range FCC products will regularly require additional treating to meet product blending specifications.

Hydrocracking units can also offer improved flexibility to shift production modes between gasoline and diesel (or called gasoil) products based on process selection, operating conditions, and catalysts used. The severity (e.g., temperature, H2 partial pressure, LHSV, process configuration, catalyst type, etc.) of the unit is set based upon the composition and properties of the feedstock processed and the desired conversion level and/or product distribution. Certain feeds (e.g., paraffinic) may be difficult to crack and thus require a higher operating temperature, while others (e.g., aromatic feeds) may have a high tendency for coke formation and, thus, require special catalyst formulations. Hydrocracker operators have been looking to increase the profitability of the unit by processing heavier feedstreams, including heavy vacuum gas oil (HVGO) and resid feeds, while minimizing the hydrogen consumption and shifting production away from gasoline and towards diesel range fuels. Residual feeds present the problems of increased H2 consumption, lower product yields and quality, and reduction in cycle length. Technology developers have been searching for methods to allow for hydrocracking units to continue normal operation while processing these difficult-to-handle feeds. These optimized parameters include higher liquid-gas distribution and reactor volume efficiency. Along with optimized process parameters, catalyst companies are also developing novel formulations that aim to increase process performance while dealing with these challenging feeds. These novel catalysts may be paired with state-of-the-art reactor internals to maximize performance.

Given the increased output from domestic shale plays such as the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Niobrara US refiners will look to process more of these unconventional crudes, which are currently traded at a discount to WTI. However, the light nature of these crudes will require refiners to invest in infrastructure upgrades including debottlenecking CDUs, gas plants, and naphtha units to increase the processing of these oils, particularly refiners along the Gulf Coast that are geared towards upgrading heavier crudes. If these upgrades are not undertaken, tight oil production could outpace the over 9MM b/d of refining capacity currently in operation on the Gulf Coast within two years. Also, the light nature of these tight crudes result in greater amounts of gasoline being produced while limiting the yields of middle distillates. Given the fact that diesel demand growth continues to outpace that of gasoline, US refiners will need to look at options to ensure that upgrading higher volumes of tight oil will still result in sufficient amounts of middle distillates being produced so as not to create a refined product supply demand imbalance within the US.

With changing market dynamics and fuel consumption patterns that heavily favor the production/use of diesel over gasoline, process designers and catalyst manufacturers are feverishly developing cost-effective and energy-efficient hydrocracking technology and revamp options to satisfy the refining industry around the world. Also, refiners will begin to rely more heavily on hydroprocessing units to produce high-quality, high-value products. Finally, the utilization of hydrocracking technologies to upgrade resid and/or renewable feeds to produce additional supplies of high-quality diesel has been covered extensively through commercial projects and R&D work over the past several years. Additionally, the hydrocracking section features the latest trends and technology offerings, including:

Catalytic reforming

Catalytic reforming transforms naphthenes and paraffins into aromatics and isoparaffins. This process serves two main objectives in the refinery: production of high-octane reformate for gasoline blending and production of high-value aromatics for the petrochemical industry. Reformers also supply considerable amounts of hydrogen needed for hydrotreating, hydrocracking, and isomerization; H2 supply coming from the reformer is becoming an increasingly important contributor to the refinery hydrogen network as more stringent fuel specifications are put in place necessitating greater H2 use in hydroprocessing units to meet these ultra-low requirements.

Regional factors will significantly influence the desired operating mode for the catalytic reformer to provide the strongest economic return on investment. Decreasing gasoline demand coupled with increased ethanol blending may necessitate US refiners to investigate reconfiguring existing cat reforming capacity to favor products other than reformate. With the ongoing shale boom resulting in domestic crackers running mostly light feeds, the production of aromatics from ethylene crackers is decreasing, opening an opportunity for cat reformers to help meet this loss in aromatics supply from crackers. In Europe where the outlook is one of decreasing demand for gasoline but increasing need for BTX, operation of the catalytic reformer centers on increasing aromatic yields. In Asia, significant demand for aromatics has dictated that the majority of catalytic reforming units be installed primarily as aromatics producers by being integrated into petrochemical facility. The Middle East is also expanding cat reformer capacity in the hopes of boosting aromatics output via integrated refinery and petrochemical complexes. For all these regions, H2 demand is rising as the US and Europe have already implemented ultra-low sulfur standards while many Asian and Middle Eastern nations are beginning to put in place more stringent fuel requirements following the leads of their western counterparts. As H2 needs within refineries continues to grow, the cat reformer will be seen as an important contributor in helping to meet H2 requirements within a plant.

The aromatics market is on an upswing with strong demand growth and many are now realizing the potential for increasing profits through catalytic reforming. Some refiners already switched operating conditions to maximize aromatics production instead of reformate. In addition to benzene and xylene, reformate also contains toluene and heavier aromatics, which can be converted to benzene and desired xylenes via hydrodealkylation, disproportionation, transalkylation, isomerization, or alkylation. By 2025, the aromatics market will account for 35% of the total naphtha supply, an increase from 27% in 2012 as the demand growth will outpace the supply, tightening markets. With the market ripe for aromatics, catalytic reforming is still an important unit. Furthermore, ethanol blending into the gasoline pool has been on an upward trend around the world, and blending ethanol displaces reformate in the gasoline pool, hence decreasing its demand. Going forward, integration of an existing cat reformer with a nearby PC plant to further boost aromatics output may become more attractive for refiners looking to maximize the value of existing reforming assets. Additionally, the catalytic reforming section features the latest trends and technology offerings, including:

Updated listings of planned, active, and recently announced catalytic reforming construction projects.

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