Refining catalysts: A new player is coming

An unmatched advantage of slurry processes is that those provide very high – upto 95% – yield of light petroleum products from the heavy bottoms. The cost of the catalysts involved in these processes for refiners is not significant, says Valentin Kotlomin

Valentin Kotlomin is director, strategic studies and downstream economics at Euro Petroleum Consultants.
Valentin Kotlomin is director, strategic studies and downstream economics at Euro Petroleum Consultants.

An unmatched advantage of slurry processes is that those provide very high – up to 95% – yield of light petroleum products from the heavy bottoms. The cost of the catalysts involved in these processes for refiners is not significant – only up to $1.5 per barrel of feedstock as per the estimates of process licensors. Nevertheless, should slurry processing become popular, the catalysts may take up a sizable share of the market, comments Valentin Kotlomin of Euro Petroleum Consultants.

Where there is a modern refinery, there is a catalytic process, or processes. That said, the current market structure for refining catalysts features four types – FCC, hydroprocessing, alkylation and reforming – that comprise 95% of the market in monetary terms. Meanwhile, there is another group of catalytic processes out there that could, provided it gains traction among refiners, fundamentally change the catalyst market structure. I mean the slurry processes. The process catalysts for these processes come in the form of fine powder, mainly made up of sulphides of transition metals, such as nickel, vanadium and molybdenum.

Today there are several major global companies specialised in licensing refining processes which announce they are ready to provide slurry processes for refiners. Of late, the true newsmaker in this field is without doubt Eni, the Italian refiner and licensor. This year the Italian company has been awarded two contracts for their slurry technology named EST, both for Chinese clients.

First, in January 2018, came the official announcement that Eni has sold the licence and basic engineering project for the construction of a refining plant based on EST technology to Sinopec, the world’s largest operator in the refining sector. Located in Maoming, Guandong province, the plant will replace the existing petroleum coke production line. Sinopec sees it as part of global efforts to contain CO2 emissions. Also, by constructing and launching this unit, the Chinese company will gain significant environmental benefits in compliance with the new IMO regulations concerning sulphur content in bunker fuel.

Then, in March 2018, Eni announced that it had been awarded a contract by Zhejiang Petrochemicals – the licence for the construction of two refining lines based on EST technology on the island of Zhoushan, in Zejiang province. The lines are to become part of a new refinery with a capacity of 40 million tonnes per annum (mtpa). It is worth mentioning that initially the plan was to construct a delayed coker unit; however, just like with the Maoming refinery, the company opted for a slurry process for environmental reasons. The total capacity of the licensed units for Sinopec and Zhejiang Petrochemicals amounts to 8.5mtpa. The completion, as per plan, is around 2020.

There is another project that may, in case of success, create an impetus for the extensive use of slurry processes in the world – the heavy residue deep conversion complex that is being built at the Nizhnekamsk Refinery, an 8mtpa plant in Russia. The core of this complex is a slurry hydrocracker – the Veba Combi Cracker (VCC) process, licensed by KBR. The unit is designed to process mixed feedstock – 2.7mtpa of vacuum residue and 1.7mtpa of VGO. At the time of writing, the company has already commissioned the unit, but it is processing VGO only. The expectations are that the refinery will shift to heavier feedstock around mid-July.

Apparently, the catalyst market structure will not just change, thanks to the success of several projects using slurry processes. However, bearing in mind the ambitious goals of the projects – the increased yield of light petroleum products, the production of low-sulphur bunker fuel and curbing of CO2 emissions – the success in constructing and operating of the units announced can spur extensive use of slurry processes. As these technologies develop further, it may radically change the approaches to bottom-of-the-barrel processes at the refineries, and hence, change the refining catalyst landscape.

Valentin Kotlomin is director, strategic studies and downstream economics at Euro Petroleum Consultants (EPC), which is a leading independent consulting company in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, as well as a producer of specialised annual international conferences and training seminars, focusing on market trends, technological advances and business strategies for the petroleum industry. EPC has offices in Dubai, London, Moscow, Sofia and Kuala Lumpur. For more information, please visit www.europetro.com

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