Optimizing Hydrotreating and Hydrocracking Operations


Against a backdrop of a global recession, most refinery investment up to 2012 involves improvements to existing assets. Improvements to catalytic processes will primarily focus on hydrotreating and hydrocracking. This includes expansion of necessary hydrogen sources, tail gas treating/sulfur recovery capacity, etc. These expanded hydroprocessing networks, coupled with efficiency improvements to crude units and select thermal conversion processes (e.g., delayed coking and visbreaking) increase the facility’s Nelson Complexity Index. The higher the refinery complexity index, the more capable it is of processing and converting heavier feedstocks into lighter components. During the next two to three years, the light components expected to yield the highest margins are typically in the mid-distillate range (e.g. ultra-low sulfur diesel [ULSD]). However, the high concentration of metals contaminants and inorganics (e.g., nitrogen) found in many of today’s crudes can decrease a hydroprocessing catalyst’s activity level and ability to upgrade feedstocks into ULSD and other high-margins products. Regardless of how much additional reactor capacity is added to compensate for the negative effects of these metals contaminants (e.g., mercury, iron and nickel), the most cost-effective strategy may be to consider employing several different types of catalysts in each reactor. In almost every case, the increase in catalyst inventories at many refineries is a reflection of the flexibility needed to deal with the changes in feedstock properties that typically require higher severity hydrotreating/hydrocracking conditions (e.g., higher temperature and hydrogen partial pressure). More importantly, it is the cost to maintain a diversity of catalyst types (e.g., CoMo, NiMo and zeolite-based formulations) inventoried at refineries that complicate refinery operations, particularly in the current downturn.

Economic considerations The downturn in the global economy comes just as several world-scale facilities are coming on-line in 2010. For example, the United Arab Emirates is set to double its refining capacity as they and other Middle Eastern countries make efforts to diversify their oil and gas industry away from simple crude oil exports. A glut of spare refining capacity may actually accelerate efforts to remain competitive by increasing refinery complexity. It therefore stands to reason that so too will the level of catalyst capabilities increase.

By the end of 2009. may be somewhat insulated from the downturn because domestic demand for refined products (e. The most complex refiners can choose the types of crude they want to process. another 2. It stands to reason that investing in refinery expansion. which have taken years to move from the conceptual phase to construction. such as in the Middle East. and saw oil product demand increase by 7% in 2009 to 1.” said Andrew Oram. including: othe previously noted flexibility in the refinery configuration for crude processing at the refinery. ofreight advantages. is a viable investment.. It is impossible to predict how long the downward cycle will last. Saudi Arabia. The downturn marks the end of a long boom period for refiners that began in 2003 as world demand for diesel and other products took off.g. For example. ocaptive cogeneration power plants to meet the facility’s steam and power requirements. a senior credit officer for Moody’s. hydrocracking. at least in some countries like Saudi Arabia. othe superior product slate of the refinery. became the fastest growing oil consumer in 2008. oability to maximize jet fuel and diesel and minimize furnace oil. are now threatening to flood the market with a glut of extra capacity just as growth in demand for many hydrocarbon-based products slows in line with a weakening global economy. according to Goldman Sachs. . othe strategic location of the facility. This advantage may become even more important in the future as refiners strive to reduce overall emissions by differentiating crudes according to their potential to generate carbon dioxide (CO2).5 million barrels per day (b/d) of refining capacity had been added around the world. However.8 million b/d.“While cyclicality is built into refining outlooks. just as it was difficult to predict when it would begin. Being able to choose the types of crude to be processed depends to a large extent on a facility’s catalyst-based processes. fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) and others. including hydrotreating. But more complex refinery networks as well as those with rapidly expanding populations. the current ‘negative’ outlook stems from demand changes that appear to be structural and enduring. the world’s top oil exporter. But those projects. Turkey) is booming and refining units are part of larger state oil firms. many other factors must be taken into account when considering the viability of today’s refinery operations. and ohydrogen production efficiency as well as other factors.

light cycle oil (LCO) and heavy cycle oil (HCO).Global distillate demand Since the new millennium. In today’s refinery environment a high pressure hydrocracking unit may be too costly for many oil companies. A more affordable solution that generally costs about a third of a full hydrocracking unit is a mild hydrocracking unit (MHC). probably operating at hydrogen partial pressures in excess of 1. some relatively high operating costs are to be expected for an FCC pretreater. Should favorable economics compel refiners to achieve near-complete elimination of heavy fuel oil.e. essentially converting the MHC unit into a full hydrocracker. which would treat FCC feed (i. shut down the vacuum tower and feed that product to a resid FCC unit. A majority of the world’s crude could be processed in this manner. considering it is to be tasked with saturating dibenzothiophenic compounds in the heavy tail of resid-based feedstock. the pretreater reactors will require a wellplanned combination of the latest NiMo/CoMo catalyst formulations. . Pretreatment of hydrocracker feedstock to reduce nitrogen content to a low level substantially increases the conversion activity of the zeolitic hydrocracking catalyst. CoMo catalysts are most often specified for diesel and ULSD hydrotreating operations. In addition to at least one guard bed to mitigate metals and nitrogen contamination of reactor catalyst. In addition to sulfur removal. cetane uplift and poly-aromatic hydrocarbon removal is also possible with new catalysts.. However. Nitrogen in the feed causes substantial inhibition of the acid sites in the zeolite responsible for cracking. but NiMo catalysts may be preferred in some cases.900 pounds per square inch (psi) to 2. more than 20 Axens MHCs have already been licensed for a combined capacity of 700 000 barrels per stream day. The elimination of sulfur oxides (SOx ) and nitrogen oxides (NOx ) recursors via pretreatment will go a long way toward meeting future NOx and SOx emissions from the FCC regenerator. especially when ultra-low sulfur is required and the feedstock contains cracked components. The highest activity catalysts are usually required for ULSD production to reach acceptable cycle lengths. FCC pretreater). along with vacuum gas oil (VGO).200 psi and even higher pressures at end of run. Another alternative is to install an atmospheric resid pretreater. More than likely. diesel hydrotreating has primarily involved sulfur removal to low (less than 500 parts per million [ppm]) or ultra-low (less than 10 ppm) levels. Hydrotreating diesel can require severe processing. The second step would be to consider the construction of a vacuum resid hydroprocessing unit. this would require the addition of a second stage to the MHC to process VGO. For example. the first step would be to process FCC cycle oils in the MHC unit. Hydrocracking catalysts usually incorporate zeolites to selectively crack heavier feed components into lighter products.

Some contaminants are introduced during normal refining processes or from upset conditions. have rendered the FCC unit a viable option over the construction of a visbreaker.g. These sacrificial catalyst layers protect downstream catalysts from the poisoning effects. catalyst cost The total on-site capital cost estimate for a new hydrotreater plant varies depending on the licensed and proprietary technology. That is. the difference between the reactivity of a paraffinic hydrocarbon and that of a VGO is so significant that it is difficult to use the catalyst for the latter as it is for hydrocracking a paraffinic hydrocarbon. increasing volumes of catalysts with high capacity to adsorb contaminants at the top of the reactor’s catalyst bed are being employed. For distillate-focused refiners currently thinking of phasing out FCC operations. The facility employs a vacuum resid desulfurization unit for FCC pretreatment. the resulting gas oil is necessarily low in pour point. it should be mentioned that complete dependence on hydrocracking may leave the refiner with a significant vacuum residue problem. nitrogen) in refinery feedstocks are often poisons for hydroprocessing catalysts. Reactor investment vs. which the FCC unit can address. which can enhance the cracking activity and middle distillate yield of the hydrocracking process while also making it possible to produce a gas oil with low pour point holds the key to an improvement of economical efficiency of the process at low-to-moderate hydrogen partial pressures.This seems to be the case with numerous refiners currently in operation throughout the world. In addition. it is important to produce useful middle distillates at higher yields to improve the economical efficiency of the process. The latest developments in resid FCC processing technology and catalysts. Catalyst efficiency In the process of hydrocracking paraffinic hydrocarbon. including the NPRC refinery in Japan processing Arab Light crude. Inorganic contaminants (e. allowing them to retain their high activity for a longer time and increase cycle length. To control this growing problem. particularly if the FCC unit already exists and can be upgraded. development of a highly efficient hydrocracking catalyst. Resid cracking over modern catalysts in a resid FCC unit produces valuable products in addition to fuel oil cutter stocks. including the processing of feeds with higher CCR and metals content while increasing LCO yields.. VGO hydrocracking has already been an established commercialized process for decades. The source of these contaminants is often the crude itself with different contaminants associated with various crude sources. It consists of three parts: a two-reactor system . However.

The cost of the reactor system and makeup compressors are a function of the percent of cracked stocks present in the hydrotreater feed pool. space velocities calculated from kinetic models and pressure are used to size each reactor. and separator and assumes the existing ISBL equipment will remain unchanged. with CoMo catalyst typically in the first reactor and NiMo in the second reactor.600 b/d is believed to be a more representative inside battery limit (ISBL) investment cost to produce ULSD. with the restrictions that the reactor length-to-diameter ratio must be greater than or equal to 5. The combined flow rates. – Rene Gonzalez . For example. and the off-site capital cost for a revamped plant is assumed to be 30% of the on-site capital cost. CoMo is more reactive in removing sulfur from the less challenging sulfur-containing molecules.(in series) with interstage hydrogen sulfur stripping. the hydrogen makeup compressor costs are calculated based on the hydrogen consumption. Published data have shown that the costs of both catalysts are about US$10 per pound. and the diameter must be less than or equal to 15 feet. an estimate of $1. hydrogen makeup compressors and remaining on-site capital equipment. The cost of each reactor is a function of the wall thickness and reactor weight. including royalty. Up to now. the sulfur present is more likely to be contained in sterically hindered molecules and is more difficult to remove using a CoMo catalyst. heater. In contrast. Below 500 ppm. whereas the cost of the remaining on-site equipment is a function of capacity.g. Differences in capital costs at a given capacity level are the result of variations in the fractions of the different types of feeds (e. The off-site capital cost for a new plant has been assumed by many in the industry to be 45% of the on-site capital cost.. The revamped hydrotreater capital cost includes only an additional reactor. straight run vs. Hydrotreater catalyst cost (in dollars per barrel) is a function of space velocities and has been calculated assuming a two-year life. on-site capital costs for new and revamped hydrotreater plants include the initial catalyst charge. NiMo has higher activity on more challenging sulfur-containing molecules. Next. cracked stocks) and the sulfur level of the feed to the hydrotreater. however. The revamped hydrotreater on-site capital portion of the model utilizes only the space velocity calculated for the second reactor used to lower the diesel pool sulfur content from 500 ppm (manually specified) to 7 ppm.