Rising demand for petrochemical products is enabling refineries to diversify their product slates by installing additional units for production of ethylene, propylene, and their derivatives. Integration of refining and petrochemical plants is driven by the need to extract the synergies between these two types of downstream plants. Refinery operators, such as Sinopec, PetroChina, Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total are at the forefront in enabling this integration.

Listed below are the key technology trends in integrated refineries, as identified by GlobalData.

Crude oil to chemicals (COTC)

Crude oil to chemicals is likely to be one of the most important technologies in the downstream oil and gas sector. It facilitates crude oil to be directly converted into high value petrochemicals, instead of being converted into traditional transportation fuels. COTC technology has the potential to unlock enormous value for the refining and petrochemicals industry. It could enable operators to extract higher value for every barrel of crude oil.

ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, Sinopec and Saudi Aramco are some of the companies that are investing in technologies to convert around 50%-60% of the crude oil to petrochemicals. Conventional refineries typically convert around 5%-20% of a crude barrel to petrochemicals. ExxonMobil has developed a technology that can take very light crude and feed directly to steam cracker to produce smaller and lighter hydrocarbons.

Joint technology development

The downstream sector is witnessing strategic collaborations among industry leaders for advancement of technologies. Saudi Aramco, the national oil company (NOC) of Saudi Arabia, has entered into a technology partnership with Chevron Lummus Global and CB&I (now McDermott) to accelerate commercialisation of its proprietary Thermal Crude to Chemicals technology. Saudi Aramco also aims to upgrade the technology to achieve 70 percent conversion of crude oil to chemicals.

The chemicals and petrochemicals sector seems to be areas of interest for R&D among other major players as well, particularly ExxonMobil and Shell. The primary objective is to maximise the yield from the conversion process to improve margins. Among the refinery technology vendors, Honeywell UOP and Axens are at the forefront in driving technology and process improvements.

Digitalisation of refineries

Refineries and petrochemical plants use a large number of instruments that capture different types of metrics on a real time basis. These instruments require frequent monitoring to ensure key performance indicators are within the set limit. This process is now greatly simplified with digital transformation. Moreover, digitalisation is enabling operators to capture millions of data points using sensors to monitor performance and detect faults.

A digital twin is the replication of physical assets and processes in a virtual environment. It enables plant operators to track every aspect of the facility in real-time, compare it with base values and take corrective actions if necessary. Digital twin also facilitates the simulation of real world situations to assess its impact on the performance and profitability of the plant.

This is an edited extract from the Integrated Refineries (Oil and Gas) – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.