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Delayed coking
New technologies and procedures for building and upgrading delayed
coking facilities are enhancing health, safety and the environment while
increasing economic viability

Rick Wodnik ConocoPhillips

Gary C Hughes Consultant

elayed coking remains the the steps needed to mitigate hazards. In actions. An example of this focus on
industry’s leading economical the process, three key principles improved systems is the comprehensive
choice for converting heavy emerged: safety-interlock system. This system was
crude into high-value products. How- — Workers should be removed from developed by studying each step of the
ever, choosing the right delayed coking hazards coke drum cycle and determining the
process goes beyond improving the — Workers should be protected from position of all the valves for each step of
bottom line. Significant technological inappropriate actions the cycle. That, in turn, led to the design
advances are now making it possible to — Protect personnel by providing of an interlock system that is applicable
process heavier feedstocks while emergency exits. to all cokers, regardless of their level of
increasing throughput, improving Remote operation, as the first level of valve automation.
safety, reducing environmental emis- safety design, should be incorporated The third level of safety is to provide
sions, and enhancing the reliability, wherever possible in an effort to personnel protection and a safe route of
flexibility and overall economics of the remove workers from hazards. Some egress in case something goes wrong on
delayed coking process. examples include: the capability to the structure. Achieving this goal
remotely drill coke drums; the requires a rigorous study of where
Safety utilisation of remotely actuated bottom operators will be during each step of the
The most significant recent safety unheading systems, which can be either drum cycle, and then evaluating means
improvement has been the development fully automatic or semi-manual; relocat- of providing either protection in place
of a comprehensive audit methodology ing valve actuation locations; and or a safe way-out.
designed to improve personnel safety on automating the lowering and lifting of
the coke drum structure. A recent study the coke drum telescopic chutes. Environmental stewardship
of coker safety incidents identified When workers cannot be relocated to Air quality concerns involving delayed
several important issues. While the a safe or more protected area, it is critical cokers focus around stack emissions
companies involved in these incidents to evaluate their primary and secondary from the coker charge heater, off-gas
often had excellent PHA systems and paths for egress in the event of a from the blowdown system that enters
emergency response measures, they were dangerous situation. Steps must be taken the refinery flare system, and fugitive
not completely immune to potential to ensure that workers have quick and dust emissions from the coke-handling
hazards. Analysis of the details and direct access to safe evacuation routes. area. Designs utilising new technology
findings from incident reviews showed Changes in procedures or operating can reduce heater stack emissions by
that, regardless of the root cause, nearly systems should always be considered operating with low excess air for
all major coker accidents occurred in carefully. For instance, it is important to maximum efficiency, by using low-NOx
three key areas: at the coke drum top work with equipment manufacturers to or ultra-low-NOx burners, and by
head, the bottom head and outlet of the understand the capabilities and incorporating air pre-heater systems.
drain lines. limitations of new unheading devices Flare emissions during the backwarm
Workers in these areas were exposed and other safety enhancements. Only and drum quench can be reduced
to fires, smoke inhalation, thermal after information has been thoroughly through a totally enclosed, closed
steam and water burns, coke drum evaluated can the most advantageous blowdown system design that recovers
blowouts and coke bed cave-ins. A devices be incorporated into a system hydrocarbon vapours and steam
gap was identified in existing safety that provides the required levels of generated from the off-line drum.
systems during the interim between a protection. In older delayed coking units, the
loss-of-containment event and the No matter how well a refinery designs main areas of air quality concern are the
emergency response team arriving. its safety programme and trains its coker charge-furnace stack emissions
These findings sparked the development operators, mistakes and inappropriate and the closed blowdown system stream
of a methodology to evaluate each actions can happen. So, the second level that ties into the refinery flare stack.
work location on the coker structure of safety is to design and operate During the backwarming and drum-
relative to key hazard areas. The systems that prevent those mistakes and cooling phases of the normal decoking
overriding objectives were to identify protect workers from inappropriate cycle, hydrocarbon vapours pass from

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the coke drum overhead through the regulations are also being implemented This selective product-yield maximisa-
closed blowdown system, with the in other refining regions of the world to tion allows the coker to easily adapt to
uncondensed gases going directly to the control SO2 and NOx emissions. fluctuations in product demands. In
flare system. In more recent grass-roots An extensive flare-emissions minimi- addition, as upstream units are
coker designs, this off-gas stream is sation study undertaken for the EPA by expanded and additional feedstock for
routed back to the main fractionator ConocoPhillips is the evaluation of the coker becomes available, it is nearly
overhead accumulator for recovery. operational best practices and design always economically desirable to reduce
This design modification significantly procedures to reduce delayed coker flare distillate recycle and increase the fresh
reduces routine emissions to the emissions. The results are already feed rate to the unit.
refinery flare system from the delayed helping the industry reduce the Recently, cokers have also been
coker unit. Many existing facilities environmental impact of coker successfully designed and constructed to
are now installing new low-pressure operations by minimising the pass- process high percentages (40–60%) of
refinery flare-gas recovery systems through of gases from flare-gas recovery solvent deasphalter pitch in the coker
downstream from the closed blow- systems to the flare, optimising flare-gas feed. Utilising pitch from an existing
down system to further decrease air recovery operations, and improving solvent deasphalting facility can
pollution, particularly SO2 emissions coker design and operations. increase overall refinery economics by
levels. converting most of the pitch to more
An efficient coke pit-pad design with Design strategies valuable transportation fuels.
high walls around the coke storage area In grass-roots coker project develop- Some refiners are operating and/or
helps to significantly reduce windborne ment, setting the design to meet both designing their cokers for a blocked-out
dust, as does the use of overhead cranes. the short- and long-term needs of the type of operation. With this strategy,
Eliminating wheeled equipment keeps refinery is critical. Considering the plants are able to process both fuel and
the operators further away from the future likelihood of expanding resid anode-grade coke feedstocks to maximise
coke and reduces dust generation, while processing during the initial design earnings. Based on crude availability and
substantially improving the inherent phase can save a plant significant lost market conditions, these coker units will
safety of the operation. profit opportunity and equipment costs. process sour resids for fuel coke
In a properly designed and operated Replacing major unit equipment, such production for a specified time frame and
coker, the only continuous process as coke drums, the fractionator or then switch to run sweet resids to make
water effluent stream during normal heater, during a turnaround will result anode coke. For example, when margins
operations comes from the main in extended downtime and increased for running high-sulphur crudes in the
fractionator overhead system. This costs. However, this strategic outlook refinery overwhelm the margin and net
stream is processed in a sour water does not mean that equipment should backs from anode coke production, it is
stripper. Water discharge to the sewers be deliberately oversized. Rather, it more economical to operate only a fuel
from the drum-handling process can be should reinforce the need to incorporate coking operation.
virtually eliminated by fine-tuning operational flexibility into the original
coke-handling and dewatering opera- design and make a few key equipment Liquid product properties
tions. By designing an effective fines- choices with long-term goals in mind. A well-designed coker-modelling program
removal system and totally recycling the In recent projects and licensing can produce good product property
drilling and quench water, it is possible proposals, refineries are also incorporat- summaries that match commercial
to balance the amount of make-up water ing unique long-term rationales into their operation. Such a program helps a plant
with the amount of water that leaves as designs. For example, some locations enhance the operating performance of
moisture with the coke product. intentionally leave plot space and specify the entire refinery by more accurately
Finally, an excellent way to process design criteria around the coker to allow estimating the impact coker products will
refinery non-biological sludges (includ- for easy placement of an additional pair have on downstream units, such as
ing desalter sludge, oily water sludge of coke drums with minimal debottle- catalytic crackers, hydrotreaters, blending
and some types of tank bottoms) is by necking of existing assets. This decision is units and storage facilities.
injecting the sludge into the bottom of based upon future plans to construct The ConocoPhillips (COP) coker
the coke drums during the appropriate either another sour-crude train or other model provides estimates of the butane
portion of the quenching process. This projects to make more coker feedstock and lighter product yields and
technology allows both wet solids and available from existing refinery units. composition. Pentane and heavier
oily, wet solids to be processed. The oil is These units utilise the benefit of being liquid yields are segregated into the
recovered within the coker process, and on-line and generating earnings to help required number of fractions, allowing
the solids are combined with the coke. pay for the future expansion projects. exact liquid cuts to be tailored to the
Any water present in the sludge is also Incorporating distillate recycle in the specific boiling-point ranges of the
recovered and recycled. processing scheme or at least designing products for the coking unit.
In the US, the latest environmental the coker so that recycle technology can Providing linkage to a liquid-cut,
issue facing the refining industry is the be added later at minimal cost is pseudo-component generation program
Consent Decree issued by the US another design strategy possibility. is another key COP coker model design
Environmental Protection Agency, the US Distillate recycle technology increases feature. This linkage enables the liquid
Department of Justice and individual the flexibility of operating the unit. In products to be expanded into 50
state governments. Refiners must con- addition to extending furnace run boiling-range components for assimila-
sider agreeing to implement pollution- length and increasing liquid product tion into the proprietary Hysys and
control equipment to significantly reduce yield, distillate recycle can be used to other standard modelling programs.
SO2 and NOx emissions and enhance site- selectively increase the desired liquid Recent research and development efforts
wide monitoring and fugitive emissions- products from the coker by varying the have also focused on improving the
control programmes. Similar types of boiling range of the material circulated. modelling of the flash zone area of the

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coker fractionator. This focus has and 820–845°F drum overhead temper- bed. At a predetermined drum level, the
proven essential in providing users with ature. Operating at low drum overhead furnace effluent is directed through a
a useful tool for defining fractionation pressures decreases the coke yield for a switch valve from the full drum into
capacities within the coker and given feedstock. Operating at high coke the other pre-warmed drum. While
evaluating advanced process control drum temperatures further decreases one coke drum is being filled for a
schemes. coke yield. Distillate recycle technology fixed cycle time, the other undergoes
is available to substantially enhance the cooling, cutting and drum
Furnace design operating performance, allowing refiners preparation steps.
The recommended design for new coker to run higher coke drum overhead Coke is hydraulically removed from
furnaces is a double-fired, horizontal- temperatures at a lower furnace outlet the drum via the jet water pump, which
cabin configuration with air preheat. temperature. The coke drum vapour produces a high-pressure (2500–
Either fuel gas or natural gas is the stream is quenched with cooled heavy 4500psig) and high-volumetric flow
preferred fuel type, and the double-fired coker gas oil (HCGO) to stop the (900–1300gpm) water stream. Most
design is preferred over single-fired reaction and retard coke build-up in the current cokers use a combination tool
because of the better flux pattern and overhead line. A good post-quench bit that first drills the pilot hole before
shorter in-tube residence times, which target temperature range is 790–810°F. switching modes to cut the remainder of
helps to improve furnace run lengths The quenched vapour-line feed enters the coke from the drum. The cutting
when processing heavy feedstocks. Either the fractionator above the section’s flash water and coke flows from the bottom
high-pressure steam or boiler-feed water zone gas oil (FZGO) draw tray. HCGO is of the drum onto the sloped wall and
is injected into each of the furnace coils sprayed into the top of the flash zone into the pit.
to help maintain the optimum velocity area to help cool and condense the Typically, fuel and anode cokers have
and residence time in the furnace tubes. heaviest hydrocarbons and knock down a 14- to 18-hour fill cycle. However,
High velocity aids in suppressing coke any entrained coke fines and heavy some experienced coking facilities are
formation in the tubes. liquid from the upward-flowing vapours. able to operate at sustained ten-hour fill
A sophisticated computer program for The specially designed and patented cycles on both two- and four-drum
modelling the process side conditions FZGO draw tray collects the heaviest units. Reducing cycle time enables
throughout the heater has been portion of the gas oil, which is higher feed rates to delayed cokers and
developed. This can accurately calculate condensed in the flash zone of the increases overall unit profitability.
the amount of cracking and vapouri- fractionator. A significant advantage of Reducing cycle time also exposes the
sation at any tube in the coker furnace, as the FZGO draw system is that it drum to more severe stress. A thorough
well as assist with other critical design eliminates coke accumulation in the understanding of the stresses must be
factors. The program has been bottom of the tower. Conventional incorporated in any decision to reduce
successfully used in conjunction with cokers allow fines from the coke drum cycle time, or premature drum failure
commercial operating data to design new overhead vapour to accumulate in the (cracking or bulging) may occur.
furnaces, debottleneck existing furnaces, bottom of the fractionator. The bottom Grass-roots cokers are often designed
and evaluate the effects of feed and fines level continuously increases and with larger-sized coke drums than those
operating changes on the coking process. eventually starts interrupting flow to the found in older coking facilities. Coke
Process side knowledge is coupled with unit charge pumps. The coker then drums are now up to 30ft in diameter
other critical mechanical design features requires a shutdown to physically clean and 96ft tall, tangent-to-tangent length.
to ensure the refinery-selected furnace out the column and bring the furnace In addition to capacity, longevity of
vendor/contractor will construct the back on-line. Whereas conventional coke drum life is crucial in creating an
most efficient and most reliable coker cokers may require downtime for optimal coker design. To meet this need,
furnace available. cleaning the fractionator every one or a proprietary coke drum mechanical
The furnace modelling tool also helps two years, cokers using the FZGO draw design and skirt attachment rationale
quantify the benefits from distillate system have demonstrated six years of has been developed to allow coke drums
recycle on furnace operations. The operation without significant coke to better withstand the extreme stresses
distillate recycle stream promotes accumulation in the fractionator. A during the routine quenching and
vapourisation during the coking second advantage of the FZGO draw backwarming cycle steps. These
process. In the heater, the increased system is the ability to improve liquid improved design standards, coupled
vapourisation raises the tube velocity, yields. Conventional coker designs use with strict adherence to operating and
which, in turn, decreases the total this flash zone gas oil, or natural recycle, maintenance practices, have allowed
residence time inside the furnace during to provide operability in the furnace. cokers to operate longer between drum
the period it is above the cracking However, recycling this heavy liquid replacements and run more cycles per
temperature of the feed. Reducing the increases coke production and decreases year than conventional cokers.
total time in the furnace above this more valuable liquid coker yields. With
temperature helps to limit coke lay- current distillate recycle technology, it Coke handling
down inside the tubes, thereby may not be necessary to utilise natural There are several arrangements for coke-
extending the furnace run length. recycle for furnace operability. handling systems (Figure 1), depending
upon design preferences and whether
Coke drums and fractionation Coke drum design the coke is going to be sent to market by
The furnace effluent flows to the on-line The coke drums serve two primary ship, truck or train, or is being directly
coke drum, where time, temperature and purposes. They provide time to allow conveyed to a calcining unit. In no
pressure conditions impact the coking reactions to go to completion, instance should the coke-handling
conversion of the feed into coke and and they collect the subsequent solid system limit the delayed coker’s
hydrocarbon vapours. Recent coke drum coke. This coke accumulates in the operation. For grass-roots designs, a pit-
designs generally operate at 15–25psig drum, forming a densely packed coke pad-crusher-type arrangement generally

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heavy-slop stream are recycled back to

the quench tower inlet and to the tower
overhead spray header, while the
remaining portion is further processed
in the coker fractionator or other
downstream units. The uncondensed
vapour portion exits overhead of the
quench tower for further cooling in the
overhead condensers.
Water and any light hydrocarbons
condensed in the overhead fin-fans are
separated in the blowdown settling
drum. The wet gas product stream is
generally routed to a vapour-recovery
system to reclaim the hydrocarbons.
New designs usually tie the overhead
settling drum line back to the
coker fractionator overhead receiver.
The light slop oil is normally recycled
to the blowdown tower. The water
product flows either into the quench
water storage tank or is sent to the sour
water-stripping unit.
Fresh water is added to the recycled
water stream to sufficiently fill the water
storage tank. This tank provides water
during the quenching phase of the coke-
drum cycle, supplies decoking water for
the jet water pump to cut and clean the
coke drums, and sends water to the dry
coke piles for dust-control purposes, as

Operations and maintenance

Coking facilities typically aim for runs
of five years or longer between major
turnarounds. Limiting coke build-up in
piping and equipment, other than the
coke drums, is crucial to achieving these
Figure 1 A coke-handling facility under construction at Petrozuata’s Upgrader at Jose, increased unit runs. Limiting coke
Venezuela formation in the furnace tubes and coke
accumulation in the fractionator tower
works best, providing a lower overall for the coke drums and to minimise air has already been discussed. Another area
capital and maintenance cost than pollution under normal operations where coke build-up causes operational
is available from most of the other (Figure 2). During the first step of the problems is in the furnace transfer-line
coke-handling systems available on coke drum cooling process, steam is piping, which is located between the
the market. injected into the drum full of coke to furnace outlet and the coke drum inlet,
A successful design should also be strip residual hydrocarbon vapours from and in the overhead vapour line, which
flexible enough to incorporate the the coke bed and into the coker runs from the top of the coke drum to
client-preferred method of unheading. fractionation tower. After a specified the fractionator inlet.
Due to the hazards associated with time period, steam and hydrocarbon The plot plan should be evaluated
unheading coke drums, many operating vapours from the coke drum are routed early in the design process to help
companies install automated systems. to the quench tower in the blowdown minimise total transfer-line length and
There are several remotely operated system. After steaming the coke drums, to establish the proper geometry to
unheading systems available on the water is injected to cool the coke prior reduce coking tendencies. Transfer lines
market that offer a variety of other to it being drilled out of the drums. The should be designed for easy clean-out
benefits. Since the unheading device is blowdown quench tower also receives when needed. In the coke drum
part of the coke drum system, it makes hydrocarbon vapour from the coke overhead transfer line, a quench oil
sense to evaluate the unheading devices drums during the backwarming stage of stream can be injected into the vapour
as part of the overall coke drum and the normal drum cycle and in line to stop the coking reactions from
coke-handling system. emergency relief scenarios. occurring in the overhead system.
In the quench tower, hot hydro- Operating with an after-quench
Closed blowdown system carbon vapours are sprayed with oil temperature of 790–810°F usually
The closed blowdown system’s primary recycled from the quench tower to prevents any significant coke formation
functions are to maximise hydrocarbon condense out the heaviest portion, in this line.
and water recovery, to provide cooling called heavy slop oil. Portions of the A coke drum foam-over is another

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way coke can form in the

overhead vapour line. Foam-
overs occur when the coke &UEL RECOVERYSYSTEM
drum is either improperly GAS
operated or overfilled, SETTLINGDRUM
pushing the reacting liquid
and/or coke into and
through the overhead 1UENCHTOWER ,IGHTSLOPOIL

vapour line and into the

fractionator. The liquid
phase then solidifies in the %MERGENCYRELIEF -AKE UP
line and portions of the FROMCOKEDRUMS WATER
fractionator, resulting in a

costly and time-intensive VAPOURS
clean-up process. To help
eliminate this hazard, many "ACKWARMFROM
refiners have installed
continuous-level indicators (0 1UENCHWATER
on the upper portion of their STEAM 7ATERFOR STORAGETANK
coke drums. Using these QUENCHTANK
indicators helps operators to 1UENCHWATER
better control carryover by
determining the height of STRIPPINGUNIT
the layer of foam.
Periodically reviewing anti-
foam vendor and additive
types to optimise chemical
addition rates and to limit
downstream unit silicon 7ASHSTATIONS
contamination is also
The generally preferred
method of decoking coker
furnaces is with on-line
spalling. This process Figure 2 A simplified closed blowdown system process flow diagram
removes coke and carbon
build-up from the inside of the furnace determine the overall feasibility of on- slates, as well as increased throughput
tubes, while maintaining a process flow line spalling, as well as general spalling due to faster coke drum turnaround
through the non-spalled gases. It uses velocity requirements, velocity limits times. Experience shows that shot coke
steam velocity and tube temperatures to and operating guidelines. If not properly production can be efficiently and safely
provide the energy to remove coke from managed, excessive steam velocity handled by adopting operating and
inside the furnace tubes. The greatest during spalling can quickly erode coke-handling system best practices.
advantage of the on-line spalling furnace tubes and return bends. In Strictly adhering to operating and drum-
technique is that it enables the coker to addition, spalling the furnace tubes too cutting procedures can prevent the
operate at a reduced rate while quickly or not monitoring and likelihood of coke drum blowouts and
decoking. Although an effective controlling the critical process variables excessive bed dumps or coke falls that
decoking method, spalling will not can cause serious plugging in the are typically associated with shot coke
remove hard, inorganic scale material, furnace tubes due to large slugs of coke production.
such as iron sulphide, from the tubes. fines being generated too quickly.
Non-organic fouling is typically Better planning
removed using the pigging process. If Shot coke production Involving maintenance and reliability
the unit must be down for steam-air Many refineries prefer to avoid shot personnel early in the planning and
decoking or pigging, it is important to coke production, because it increases design stages is becoming increasingly
clean transfer lines and to inspect coke-cutting difficulties. However, important as a way to improve unit
exchangers or other pieces of equipment feedstocks with higher asphaltene and performance. An example of these
within the unit during this downtime aromatic content tend to produce shot benefits includes specifying coke-
period. coke over sponge coke, and operations handling cranes with adequate catch-up
A critical factor in on-line spalling using higher temperatures and lower capacity for daily preventative
design and operating procedure pressures also tend to lean toward shot maintenance and reliability activities.
development is the overall coil coke production. In fuel-grade units, it is Another example is effectively designed
geometry and configuration of the typically more economical to operate at coke drums that have long life cycles.
furnace convection and radiant conditions that produce shot coke, Having to replace coke drums
sections. A detailed furnace geometry because of greater liquid yields and prematurely is a significant capital
and tube design review will help to better margins for advantaged crude expenditure and requires a one-to-two-

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month unit shutdown for installation. available tools (such as RMPCT or training.
Providing EPC contractors with detailed DMCPlus). Along with model-based
drum fabrication guidelines based upon controls, the APC strategy on a coker
finite element analysis from extensive unit consists of custom calculations and ThruPlus is a mark of ConocoPhillips.
operating data can also make a programs, such as drum status
difference. At some coking facilities, the prediction. These applications use Rick Wodnik is currently product director,
following on-line techniques are now models obtained from testing at the delayed coking, in the technology solutions
being used to monitor crack propaga- actual plant to predict, control and division of ConocoPhillips in Houston,
tion, help reduce stresses from normal optimise the unit. Benefits from using Texas, USA. He directs the licensing and
cycle operations and to determine the APC on delayed cokers include marketing efforts related to the company’s
remaining life expectancy of coke increased furnace run lengths, better proprietary ThruPlus delayed coking
drums: coke drum outage control, minimised technology and is responsible for product
— Acoustic emissions to locate cracks impact of drum switches on the planning and strategy. His 29-year tenure
and monitor growth fractionator and pumparound systems, with ConocoPhillips includes 12 years of
— Strain gauges to evaluate thermal improved product property control, refinery experience in the areas of process
and pressure effects of unit operations the ability to operate equipment closer engineering, operations, petroleum coke
on coke drum stress to process constraints, and increased optimisation and logistics management.
— Internal laser scans, performed in unit capacity. Email:
between the clean-out and back- Extensive operator training pro- Gary C Hughes is currently principal
warming drum steps, to identify drum grammes are another developing norm. consultant with Worldwide Coker
bulges and weak spots This training should be tailored to meet Consultants. Prior to this, he worked for
— Coke drum skin temperature both the experience level of trainee Conoco/ConocoPhillips for over 35 years,
monitoring to help track thermal operators and the needs of owners. where he held positions in both operating
stresses on the drums during the Whenever possible, the training should and process design. He has co-authored a
complete coking cycle. be hands-on and include: coker number of patents and papers on the
Advanced process controls (APC) are management and technical programs delayed coking process. Hughes has a
also useful and typically implemented as for operations supervisors and technical chemical engineering degree from
model-based multi-variable controls personnel; development of operating Oklahoma State University.
using one of the several commercially procedures; and maintenance awareness Email:

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