Partnerships Aim To Improve Oil Refining

Anglo-Russian effort is latest cooperative venture.

By Sean Ottewell, Editor at Large

A consortium just formed by the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, the Boreskov Institute of Catalysis (BIC), Novosibirsk, Russia, and the Skolkovo Foundation, Moscow, aims to reduce heat losses in oil refining by up to 15%. A letter of intent signed in mid-September also states that the joint effort will strive to enhance refining processes, increase safety in plants and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The new consortium will build on research already being carried out.

"The ongoing development of Russia's oil industry is a major part of the country's efforts to modernize its economy and infrastructure. Imperial has worked on projects for oil companies around the world and we look forward to ensuring that the research from this collaboration translates into real energy savings and environmental improvements," says Imperial rector Keith O'Nions.

Crude oil fouling in refinery pipes damages the process and can increase carbon dioxide emissions in the environment. Refineries currently generate 2.5% of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions, according to some estimates.

Imperial will play a key role in the new Anglo-Russian consortium. The three-year project also will see the college's knowledge transfer arm, Imperial Consultants, facilitate academic and industrial partnerships to ensure research carried out by the consortium gets translated into benefits for industry and society. In addition, the college will run a series of exchange visits and collaborative workshops with Russian research colleagues to strengthen research capacity and close the gap between scientific research and industrial application.

For its part, the BIC brings to the consortium 25 years of R&D experience on both fundamental and applied catalysis. Its specialties include: chemical catalysis as a phenomenon and prediction of catalytic action; kinetic and mechanistic studies of catalytic reactions; establishment of scientific bases for devising catalysts; and development of catalysts and catalytic processes for new application areas.

In recent years, BIC increasingly has focused on transfering fundamental research into industrial implementation — leading to the successful commercialization of a number of catalysts for cracking, dehydrogenation, reforming and desulfurization.

Funding for the $10-million project will come from the Skolkovo Foundation's Energy Efficiency cluster. The foundation, set up by the Russian government, supports new technologies, engineering and commercialization. In 2011 it has signed agreements with other organizations covering technologies as diverse as nuclear engineering, telecommunications, silicon chips and medical devices.

For Imperial's Department of Chemical Engineering, this new consortium will build on research already being carried out in similar areas.

One such effort concerns pre-heat-train fouling, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion/year in the U.S. alone. The department is a lead player in the Crude Oil Fouling (CROF) project funded by the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. This has three main objectives: to investigate fundamental parameters leading to deposition; to provide a framework for predicting deposition and avoiding it by design; and to formulate methods for mitigation.

CROF itself is divided into eight sub-projects designed to provide a coordinated attack on the problem of fouling — and brings together chemical engineering expertise from the University of Bath, the University of Cambridge and IHS ESDU, a London-based provider of engineering data. An important feature of this project also is to develop close bonds with the refining industry and its suppliers, building on links that already exist via IHS EDSU's own Fouling Working Party.

Sub-project A will look at the temperature dependence of the link between feedstocks and deposits, while advancing characterization of these materials and examining the relationship between fouling rates and asphaltene contents.

The goals of sub-projects E and F are to establish rates of fouling deposition and provide deposit samples for physical and chemical characterization. A stirred-vessel test facility developed at the University of Bath will enable carrying out quick, economical inventory tests. It also will supply material for use in sub-project A. During flow tests, researchers will aim to continuously measure fouling layer thickness and heat transfer coefficients and to study the dynamics of the fouling process.

Sub-project G, a joint Cambridge/Imperial College effort, focuses on control and mitigation, including modeling of heat exchanger systems as well as cleaning and control strategies.

Sub-project B centers on developing a fundamental understanding of mechanisms by which deposits adhere to surfaces, while sub-project C looks at their transfer processes. Sub-project D will use advanced thermodynamics to improve understanding of asphaltene behavior.

The final sub-project, H, focuses on transferring all this new technology to industry, a task that falls to IHS ESDU.

SEÁN OTTEWELL is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at