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Optimize Hydrocracker Unit Operations to Reduce Costs and Improve Yields

Emerson Process Management’s Tim Olsen and Gary Hawkins discuss how to achieve better performance, energy efficiency, asset reliability, and safer operations through more precise control.

With over 100 hydrocracking units operating around the globe and more under development, many opportunities exist for refiners to achieve higher levels of safe, reliable performance. No matter how efficient a unit may seem today, that process can be improved through advanced automation, resulting in reduced energy usage, greater production flexibility, increased quality and yields, and higher reliability with lower maintenance costs.

Gary Hawkins, Emerson Process Management

Gary Hawkins, Emerson Process Management

Because hydrocracking units are key contributors to a refinery’s profitability, making improvements to optimize process operations makes real economic sense, especially in view of the high cost of designing and building these units. By employing advanced technologies to enhance performance, the refining  company can maximize the return on its original investment.

Achieving greater flexibility involves many factors, including more precise temperature control of the reactor beds as well as the upstream heaters and downstream fractionators. A variety of automation solutions are to help refiners obtain greater operational flexibility from the day they are implemented. For example, many existing units were designed for catalysts that are now outmoded. Today’s catalysts are much more active and selective, but they cannot deliver high performance without tight temperature and pressure control. That’s why the accurate and reliable measurements delivered by digital instrumentation are so important for controlling the reactor yield and other parts of the overall process.

Many factors contribute to better utilization of process units including good heater management, reduced control valve variability, extensive field instrument diagnostics, and vibration monitoring of a wide range of mechanical assets. In essentially every case, the precise control afforded by combining accurate measurements with modern automation solutions contributes significantly to better utilization.

The upgrades suggested for existing hydrocracking processes apply equally to greenfield units currently being designed or planned. Smart digital control should be specified wherever designers are seeking to build world-class performance into hydrocracking operations. The commissioning and calibration of smart instruments are faster and more accurate with these features, resulting in benefits at project startup. After startup, the diagnostics generated by these same smart instruments support ongoing benefits through better performing operations and enhanced reliability. These advantages ensure a faster return on the substantial investment in hydrocracker units with continued performance for sustainable returns.

Editor’s note: This discussion by Tim Olsen ( and Gary Hawkins is based on a more detailed paper on “Optimizing Hydrocracking Operations to Reduce Costs and Improve Yields.”

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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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