Oil is the lifeblood of the global economy, but the processes to turn raw crude oil into a refined product are complex and costly. Specifically, refiners of “opportunity crude” face mounting pressure to improve safety and stability, while increasing revenue and decreasing environmental impact. Technology is helping address these concerns with recent advances in data and analytics making it possible to minimize risk and maximize profit.
Crude oil accounts for more than 85 percent of a refiner’s cost structure. Traditional crudes are predictable and refineries know how to process them. They’re also expensive. With today’s volatile oil market, more North American refineries are turning to lower cost opportunity crudes to meet operating margins. Opportunity crudes, such as heavy oil produced from the Canadian oil sands, and light tight oils produced by hydraulic fracturing, are categorized by their inconsistency and the presence of problematic components. They are difficult to process, but discounted in price because of their unpredictable properties and processing challenges. Without a strategy to assess and mitigate such issues, the benefits of using the cheaper crude can quickly erode.
Improved extraction techniques are bringing new sources of oil into production. In the next several years, the percentage of crude oil classified as “opportunity crude” will increase significantly. This will force crude blending to become more aggressive, giving rise to increasing risk for the refineries and instability in the refining operation.
To give you a better sense of the challenges, if you were to look at an image of several different crude truck deliveries to the same refinery on the same day, you’d notice drastically different compositions even though they might be all be labeled “Eagle Ford Crude.” If not correctly managed, these opportunity crudes could cause significant damage to equipment, and lead to plant shutdowns and costly repairs.
Generally, what makes opportunity crudes problematic are constituents inherent to the crude and oil field additives within the crude. For a refiner, a successful strategy for processing opportunity crudes requires identifying probable processing issues and assessing inherent risks associated with running a particular crude or crude blend. With this knowledge, the refiner can better predict processing issues and implement cost-effective mitigation strategies.
Decoding Data through Fingerprinting
For decades, innovative companies have invested significantly in research to understand the causes of crude and crude blend instability, as well as in the development of chemistries to address these problems. A large part of this effort has focused on creating a new way to expedite analysis of crude characteristics, particularly since traditional methods are very slow and labor-intensive.
Crude fingerprinting is an analytical device measuring properties of the crude, coupled witih sophisticated predictive analytics. Crude fingerprinting offers rapid-response, on-site analysis of crude oils, oil blends and other hydrocarbon fluids. Essentially, crude fingerprinting quickly tests (within five minutes) and identifies crude make-up before it goes into the refining process, helping to ensure the subsequent treatments are appropriately applied.
The Future of Opportunity Crudes
By taking advantage of the price of opportunity crudes and managing the refining process effectively to accommodate the challenges, the refiner expands margins and increases its profitability. To be successful, it is critical to use innovative technology, capturing and analyzing appropriate data for the refinery’s operating team.
Forward-thinking, solutions-driven companies are helping refiners push the operating envelop. Collaborating with chemical suppliers to build predictive models based on the actual properties of individual crudes, can identify issues in advance and allow for rapid response to processing challenges.
Crude fingerprinting is giant leap forward in securing a more sustainable future for the oil and gas industry. It’s everyone’s opportunity.
Tom Stanley is Chief Technology officer, Water & Distributed Power, GE Power.