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Crude Oil Upgrading with Hydrodynamic Cavitation

Max I. Fomitchev-Zamilov
Quantum Vortex, Inc.


We present the results of heavy crude oil upgrading using our proprietary hydrodynamic cavitation
technology. The processed samples included diluted Athabasca bitumen (dilbit) and atmospheric residue
obtained from refining Pennsylvania light crude. The 55-gallon samples were processed through 30-GPM
experimental system at 200C and ambient pressure. After 15 minutes of processing the viscosity was
reduced 50% and API was increased 1.5 degrees. We further present a pilot plant diagram and outline the
necessary conditions for economic viability of the hydrodynamic crude oil upgrading process.
Cracking of Hydrocarbons with Cavitation
There has been a recent spike in interest in cavitation and its application to oil upgrading and wastewater
treatment. The interest is driven by the need for cheaper and greener technology. In this regard successful
experiments have been performed on ultrasonic upgrading of bitumen (Chakma and Berutti, 1993), heavy
crude oil (Yen, 1997), and petroleum residue (Sawarkar et al., 2009).
It is unquestionable that oil upgrading via acoustically driven cavitation works in the lab and the
mechanism of action is attributed mostly to thermal hydrocarbon cracking due to formation of inertially
confined plasma in cores of collapsing cavitation bubbles (Flanigan and Suslick, 2010). Cavitation bubble
implosions are extremely high-energy events characterized by temperatures in excess of 5,000C and
pressures well over 1,000 bars (Niazi. and Hasheabadi, 2013). Such temperatures and pressures naturally
lead to thermal cracking of C-C bonds and aromatic rings (Cataldo, 2000) Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Hydrocarbon cracking during cavitation bubble collapse.

Still, the exact mechanism driving these sonochemical reactions is poorly understood and may include
electric (Besov et al., 2003), tribochemical (Fischer, 1988), and hitherto unknown effects.
Regardless of the actual reaction mechanism it is obvious that high-energy concentration allowed by
cavitation and related phenomena one way or the other results in chemical and physical changes that are
beneficial to crude oil upgrading (e.g. API increase and viscosity reduction). As such commercial
applications cavitation technology to crude oil upgrading are of significant practical interest.

Unfortunately, feasibility of cavitational crude oil upgrading at a commercial scale was not established
until now. In fact, there is still a widely held belief that the efficiency of cavitational hydrocarbon
cracking is far too low to be commercially viable.
We hereby challenge this assertion by providing experimental results of heavy crude oil upgrading using
hydrodynamic cavitation in a process that we deem economically viable.
Hydrodynamic Cavitation Hardware
Unlike acoustic cavitation that relies primarily on piezoelectric or magnetostrictive transducers for highamplitude sound generation, hydrodynamic cavitation occurs in a variety of mechanical devices such as
venture nozzles or rotor/stator siren-like machines. Because it is possible to dissipate tens and even
hundreds of kilowatts of input power by creating extreme turbulence and hydraulic shocks that lead to
hydrodynamic cavitation in mechanical rotor/stator machines, we have chosen and optimized (FomitchevZamilov, 2013) a hydrodynamic siren design to study the efficacy of commercial-scale crude oil
upgrading with cavitation technology. Our company, Quantum Vortex, Inc. (QVI) has patented
(Fomitchev-Zamilov, 2014) and built several optimized hydrodynamic reactors that employ a variety of
phenomena from extreme shearing to fluid hammer to intensify a wide variety of physical and chemical
processes in fluids, including hydrocarbon cracking.
Typical characteristics of a QVI hydrodynamic reactor are as follows:

Power: W = 40-120kW;
Flow Rate: Q = 5-18 m3/hour;
Acoustic Power Density: I 10 MW/m2;

Volumetric Power Density: E 1 GW/m3.

Typical acoustic signature of a QVI hydrodynamic reactor is characterized by trains of pressure pulses in
the range of 10 to 60 bars with variable frequency up to 10 kHz Fig. 2. Such dynamic acoustic pressures
are truly extreme, unprecedented in the industry, and are essential for extreme cavitation. After all, the
energy dissipation during cavitation is directly proportional to the pressure pulse amplitude.

Fig. 2. Typical acoustic signature of a QVI hydrodynamic reactor illustrating peak-to-peak

pressure of 24 bars (left) and 32 bars (right); pulse rate in both cases is ~6 kHz.
The QVI hydrodynamic reactor rigged for acoustic characterization is shown on Fig. 3, while the same
reactor installed in the oil upgrading demo plant is shown on Fig. 4.

Fig. 3. QVI hydrodynamic cavitation reactor.

Fig. 4. QVI oil upgrading demo plant.

Experimental Results: Athabasca Bitumen Upgrading
To evaluate commercial feasibility of bitumen upgrading we have obtained several 55-gallon drums of
diluted Athabasca bitumen (dilbit) from United Refining Company (URC) of Warren, Pennsylvania. The
dilbit was collected directly from pipeline and thus contained approximately 40% of diluent by volume.
URC did not provide the crude assay.
To prepare the dilbit for processing we removed of the diluent by heating the dilbit to 100C under
vacuum using electric drum heaters wrapped around a 100 gallon stainless pressure vessel.
The QVI hydrodynamic reactor used in the experiment was a 30-GPM model powered by a 75-kW
electric motor Fig. 5. The reactor was connected to a feed tank into which we have deposited
approximately 60 gallons of the evaporated dilbit. Dilbit initial temperature in the tank was ~50C. The
entire system including the feed tank was airtight and at the beginning of the experiment the pressure
gauge in the tank read 0 psig. Prior to running the experiment we have drawn several before samples
from a sampling valve at the bottom of the feed tank. The feed tank was clean prior to the test and the oil
in the tank was thoroughly mixed to ensure representative sampling.

Fig. 5. Oil upgrading experimental setup.

During the experiment the dilbit was circulated from the feed tank into the reactor and back into the feed
tank. The temperature in the feed tank was monitored by a thermocouple and rose to 200C during the test
run that lasted for 15 minutes. The final pressure in the tank was 30 psig (~2 bars).
The increase of pressure in the feed tank is attributed to light hydrocarbon formation during the dilbit
cracking via the hydrodynamic cavitation in the QVI reactor. In a separately conducted control
experiment the evaporated dilbit in another airtight tank was heated to 200C using the low-watt-density
electric heater to avoid cracking. The pressure in the control tank rose only to 3 psig indicating
satisfactory diluent removal during the dilbit preparation.
The processed dilbit in the feed tank was allowed to cool overnight until the temperature returned to
ambient and the tank pressure returned to 0 psig. The return to ambient pressure in the feed tank indicates
that all of the generated light hydrocarbons condensed back into the liquid thus leaving no incondensable
gases (such as C1-C5) behind. Once again we have thoroughly mixed oil in the tank and drew several
after samples from the sampling valve at the bottom of the feed tank to ensure representative sampling.
We have analyzed both before and after samples in triplicates at our lab. The viscosity was measured
at 40C according to ASTM D445 protocol using Cannon miniAV automatic viscometer, which was
calibrated using Cannon viscosity standards and found to be accurate to within 0.3% (we have used
Cannon N1000 viscosity standard).
API gravity was determined at 15.56C (60F) according to ASTM D4052 protocol using Mettler-Toledo
DA-300 automatic density meter. The density meter was auto-calibrated using air and distilled water and
found to be accurate to within 0.1% from the known values for air and distilled water.
Density and viscosity tests were performed in triplicate to establish standard deviations.
Simulated distillation was performed according to ASTM D7169 protocol using Thermo-Fisher Trace GC
1300 gas chromatograph equipped with ResTek MXT-1HT column. The chromatograph was calibrated
using Separation Systems SD-SS3E-03 reference gasoil.
Additional analysis of the before and after samples was performed at a third party laboratory,
InterTek. Interteks results corroborated out findings within the experimental error.
API increase, viscosity reduction, distillate yield increase of the before and after dilbit samples is
illustrated on Fig. 6-7 and the summary of the changes is given in Table 1. Overall we have observed
~50% viscosity reduction and 1.5 degree API increase, which in 2013 oil prices translated into the added
value of approximately $1 USD per barrel.

Although no attempt was made to minimize the energy consumption and thermal losses during the test
(the feed tank and the reactor were not thermally insulated), we have consumed only 10 kWh of electric
power during 15 minutes of testing thus resulting in an energy cost of $0.60 USD assuming the rate of 6
cents per kilowatt-hour.

API Increase

Viscosity Reduction


Viscosity, cSt

Degrees API







Fig. 6. Dilbit API increase (left) and viscosity reduction (right) due to cavitation processing.

Yield Increase

Yield, mass %








Fig. 7. Dilbit distillation yield increase due to cavitation processing.

Table 1. Dilbit upgrading result summary.


Experimental Results: Atmospheric Residue Upgrading

For another test we have used atmospheric residue obtained from refining of Pennsylvania light crude at
American Refining Group in Bradford, Pennsylvania and marketed as Kendex 0842 cylinder stock. The
The Kendex 0842 cylinder stock is a completely dry atmospheric residue with all the distillates
boiling < 400C completely removed. Therefore ASTM D7169 simulated distillation chromatogram of
the residue has only one large peak between 15-th and 30th minutes, Fig. 8 (red plot).
The feed tank and the QVI reactor were completely disassembled and cleaned between the tests to inspect
for damage and to ensure no cross-sample contamination. Because Kendex was already devoid of diluent
and thus highly viscous we had to heat the residue in the drum to 80C using the external drum heater
prior to transferring into the feed tank. Aside from this the rest of the experimental and sampling protocol
was exactly the same as in the case of dilbit. The results are summarized in Table 2 and the
chromatograms of the before and after samples are compared on Fig. 8. It is evident from the
processed sample chromatogram (Fig. 8, blue plot) that light hydrocarbons in the kerosene range were
formed during hydrodynamic processing in the QVI reactor; one can easily see peaks between 2nd and 7th
minutes that were completely absent in the before sample. According to our analysis approximately 5%
of the residue was converted into a useful distillate during the hydrodynamic processing. Once again, we
have not detected the presence of incondensable gases. Asphaltenes quantity also remained unchanged in
both tests, although we did not collect statistically significant data to derive firm conclusion.

Fig. 8. ASTM D7169 SimDist chromatogram for the original atmospheric residue (red) and the
processed one (blue). The processed material has prominent peaks between minutes 2-7
corresponding to kerosene fraction that is completely absent in the original material.

Table 2. Kendex upgrading result summary.



Demo Plant
Given obvious engineering difficulties in handling limited quantities of crude oil in a high-throughput
system the next step in the process is a field test with real time monitoring of crude quality. Block
diagram of the simplest possible pilot upgrading plant built around QVI hydrodynamic reactor is shown
on Fig. 8. In this particular diagram we have employed a natural gas (or a fuel oil) engine to drive the
reactor if the plant is to be deployed at a remote location where electric power is unavailable. The largest
component of the demo plant is the heat exchanger, which, fortunately, can be dramatically reduced in
size once the lowest effective processing temperature is determined. The heat exchanger may be
altogether eliminated if the process temperature reduced to ~100C, typical temperature of a SAGD
process. Alternatively, the heat exchanger is not necessary if the oil well gas is available and suitable for
combustion (or the oil itself is suitable for combustion in an HFO engine). In this case the upgraded crude
oil can be either air or water-cooled.

Fig. 8. Block diagram of QVI pilot upgrading plant.

We have successfully demonstrated upgrading of Athabasca bitumen and atmospheric residue at an
industrial scale. In both cases we have obtained results consistent with 1-2 degree API increase and ~50%
viscosity reduction, which is equivalent to an economic benefit of ~$1 USD per barrel in 2013 prices.
Although no effort was made to optimize the reactor or to minimize the losses our preliminary power
consumption measurement of 10 kWh to upgrade ~60 gallons indicate that the proposed process can be
made economically viable, especially when the system is fitted with a heat exchanger and properly
insulated. As such we look forward to the opportunity to field-test our technology.

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