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High Run Rates Driving Automation Projects

New automation and instrumentation projects in an era of limited capital allow refiners to improve reactor performance, distillation systems, heaters and other equipment without the need for major upgrades.

Central control room.

Central control room.

In many cases, considering that many facilities are running at greater than 92% run rates, as recently reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), better automation and control of process conditions are achievable without the need for upgrades catalysts (and shutdown time for reloading), reactor internals, metallurgical upgrades and other investments that can shut down unit operations for months.

According to information made available by Honeywell Process Solutions, a wide range of migration options for upgrading control systems are available to support even 30+ year-old control systems. A white paper from Honeywell stated, “These migration solutions are designed to provide access to up-to-date technology without having to ‘rip and replace’ the entire legacy hardware and software system.” Against this backdrop, it was noted that Total’s refinery operations in Texas can continue running older units as well as new units with different versions of instrumentation systems, while providing increased efficiency.

Aside from existing refineries, Honeywell is providing advanced automation controls to Iraq’s Karbala refinery, now under construction in Karbala Province, about 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. The grassroots refinery will use automation controls from Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) to allow Iraq’s State Company of Oil Projects’ (SCOP) Karbala refinery to maximize production of fuel and other products that will help offset the more than 350,000 bpd of refined products the country currently imports. These technologies will also help meet growing domestic demand with products meeting international standards equivalent to Euro V fuel standards. Startup of the 140,000 bpd refinery is expected in 2020.

But for the most part, as oil prices are expected to remain relatively low into 2017 (< $50/bbl), modernization of automation systems provide the most practical option for increasing capacity and complexity of existing facilities. These projects are typically conditioned as operational improvement opportunities, with verifiable return on investments (ROIs). According to recent statistics, these upgrades are launched as a precursor to a multi-variable controller project or some type of process or energy efficiency project. Others are purely upgrade cases. Without capital available for new grass roots capacity, the industry is relying on smaller capital “constrained” standalone projects with a significant focus on the application of operations management systems and advanced process control.

Capital may be limited for building new units or increasing the capacity of existing units, but refinery margins are projected to remain healthy enough to invest in systems, such as analyzers, that are capable of quantifying a wide range of physical properties (by one instrument and by one single measurement). According to information available from UK based Modcon Systems, investment in analyzers is relatively low as compared to the overall price to be payed for delayed laboratory based detection in production of off-spec materials, or running process units in a non-optimized mode. Capital outlays for more instrumentation and sensors linked to automation systems seems to be justified in high utilization cycles.

Ascertaining whether a process unit needs additional advanced control, instrumentation and sensors, or whether instability problems can be corrected with little or no capital investment provides an adequate amount of automation and controls for optimal performance, hopefully. Determining what instrumentation and control applications other downstream operators have found to be effective should be evaluated and considered for other similar facilities, such as with the wave of new wireless applications.

Facilities with similar cost functions and market objectives may nonetheless require automation and control system unique to the specific facility. This is because daily operations at each facility differ in complexity, and a small number of process variables that are of no consequence at one facility may impact another facility more severely. In practice, effective manipulation of just a few variables that could lead to major disruptions justifies the ROI for automation and related instrumentation upgrades.

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Posted by: Rene Gonzalez

Rene G Gonzalez is the Director for and contributing editor for As a chemical engineer (Texas A&M University: 1982), Gonzalez has worked in various engineering capacities throughout the energy industry value chain, primarily in refinery processing and operations.

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