Refinery 2030: Where is the industry headed?

As we come to the close of yet another year, the promised 2030 looms ever more. No matter how you look at it, opinions seem divided – petrochemicals are poised for growth between two and three percent through 2030, but industry players have also set their sights on addressing changing demands and making the transition to a circular economy.

2030 really isn’t all that far away, and a panel discussion held during the Asian Refining Technology Conference (ARTC) this year took a look at what industry leaders and experts expected to see as the industry shifts toward the near future.

Kicking off the session was Paul Newman, President of Petrogenium, who said, “Refinery 2030 makes you think of an integrated, flexible, connected facility… Is it more complex than that? When you look at the landscape of potentially new business models, disruptive technologies, different feedstocks, and perhaps the emergence of carbon tax seems to be coming back on the agenda – when you look at that, it is complex, and it is not easy.”

“I don’t think that the next 25 years will look like the previous 25,” said Jonatas Melo, Senior Vice President Asia South, Borouge, “so it’s definitely interesting to reflect back on the industry, and I think there are a couple thoughts on the future. Integration has been a trend through the life of refineries since a long time ago, but the complexity of that integration, and the challenges that these requirements are moving toward are just getting more and more complex. And what we see from our side is also traditional refinery models, where the output of chemicals used to be relatively small, moving towards a much higher proportion of output in chemicals.”

“One major transformation that’s coming toward this integration,” he added, “is the percentage of petrochemicals and the influence of petrochemicals within the value chain or refiners, and how the refiners are going to be more exposed to different kinds of markets that have a very different dynamic as compared to traditional fields.”

On the topic of shifting toward greener, more sustainable technologies, Madhukar Garg, President of Petrochemical R&D at Reliance Industries, said, “If you don’t talk about sustainability, there cannot be any talk about a future refinery – it’s as simple as that. So, when we talk about refinery or 2030, we are talking about big push in terms of its continued sustainability. And when we talk about continued sustainability, it is in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of the refinery, which is actually now termed as scope one, scope two and scope three.

I personally believe that as we go forward, at least in 2030, you will definitely see a significant drop in the gasoline production by the refineries worldwide. Even in my own country, India, electric vehicles are now moving around in places like Mumbai. Diesel might still continue, I think even in 2030, but the way to make it carbon neutral is to replace the fossil carbon with green carbon.”

This concept of replacing fossil carbons with a greener carbon is currently in effect, with Garg sharing some successful examples of hydrotreating vegetable oil to make green diesel, but he also cautioned that the availability of this oil could become very “country-centric”, with territories in the Americas or Europe enjoying access to a lot more biofuel.

Looking into a more connected refinery

From a technological perspective, M Kamil Arsyad, Principal Engineer at PETRONAS, expanded on the growing influence of digitalization on the oil and gas industry.

“Digitalisation is all the rage these past few years, and everybody is picking up on it… We’ve even seen this in oil and gas, which is traditionally a bit slower in adopting this kind of technology – right now it’s picking up pace and moving towards a much faster rate. I think that in 2030, the refinery of the future, we can see a lot more of an integrated refinery in terms of the data that flows vertically from the production plant all the way to the decision-making at the very top. We have that right now, but you have to analyse it, you have to look at the trends… In the future, we might see technology such as AI or machine-learning helping us along with the process, and this data will help people make decisions much faster and have a more flexible refinery.

The other thing is that we will see a more connected refinery in terms of operations and production; you will see more technologies being fused into the field. Things that are quite rare now – such as remote technical support direct from the field to your technical experts out there somewhere else in the world – you will see that happening more. We will also have newer ways of working, using things like augmented reality to “see”, so that you can visualize or do a walkabout of the facility without even having to be there. And this will help maintenance and operation in terms of responding faster to changes or to any issues in the field.

Refiners on the clock

One point that was brought up by Andy Saunders-Tack, Director of Operations for Asia-Pacific, Becht, was how time was running out for refiners to act. “I’ve been in this business upwards of 35 years now,” he said, “and we’ve never really made some of that stuff happen with any level of urgency, but in the last year I’ve seen a lot of change. The industry has been quite conservative, and what I’m seeing now is that conservatism is being driven out by the need to change.”

“We’ve talked about having online monitoring systems and health monitoring for many years, it’s now beginning to happen. I think we’re already seeing a lot of software supporting systems that allow folks to have that connectivity, and we are getting this data. Now, it’s a question of making expedited decisions on the basis of presenting big data in a way that can be reviewed and actioned.”

At the end of the day, though, the question for the industry circles back to the issue of funding. “There’s a very fragmented scene here, in terms of how we’re going to pay for this,” noted Saunders-Tack. “I’ve also realized that in many cases, those private equity funds and governments don’t have the expertise that we, as long-term as we have been in the industry, have, and this is a role that we have as industry leaders in this area, to be effectively educators and coordinators for those sources of funding.”

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