Smart process integrations and the major challenges facing the FCC market in the next 3 -5 years. Exclusive interview with Nicolas Lambert, RDS, FCC & Sweetening Technology Team Manager at Axens

Oil refinery at twilight, Aerial view petrochemical plant and oil refinery plant background at night,  Petrochemical oil refinery factory plant at twilight.

What has been the major change in the FCC market that you have seen recently? How do you think the pandemic has impacted the FCC market?

Sustainable market changes will not happen overnight. Yet, it is certain the pandemic had some effects on the Oil & Gas industry in general and some of those effects that are likely to impact the FCC market over an extended period of time are those that go in the same direction than trends already occurring. The most prominent example is probably the gradual shift from gasoline and motor fuels production to a deeper integration with the petrochemical industry. The demand for FCC processes nowadays almost systematically encompasses propylene production, recovery and purification. This trend, already present for over a decade now, was certainly accelerated by the pandemic due to a drastic reduction in personal vehicles usage.

What are the major challenges facing the FCC market?

The major challenge with FCC technology was to depart from its original concept as a gasoline producing machine and evolve into a petrochemical tool. This has been achieved with petro-FCC units with the HS-FCC (High Severity FCC) as the spearhead to address residuum feds processing. The upcoming challenge for FCC operators will now be to accommodate this shift towards petrochemistry into their existing production units.

How can FCC operators adapt to fluctuations and inconsistencies in feedstock supply?

They can adapt by increasing their flexibility. Some technology features (such as a reliable catalyst cooler) which can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice or efficient internals (such as stripper packing) with the capability to adapt to harsher feed quality or more severe operating conditions can be essential in this context. Some smart process integrations such as, for instance, the coupling of an oligomerisation unit with the FCCU (known as FlexEne™), allowing to either enhance the production of propylene (and other light olefins) or boost the motor fuel balance (diesel and/or gasoline) will also ensure a higher flexibility and thus a higher degree of freedom to accommodate those changes.

What separates the world’s best FCC operators from the rest? What are the qualities of a “best-in-class” FCC operator, and how can FCC operators differentiate in the increasingly competitive market?

Versus a fast changing world and fluctuating market demands, the ability to address those variations in a swift manner will definitely bring a competitive edge to a refiner. The process tool itself will be a contributor: Do I operate a flexible and resilient process or not? Beyond the original capabilities of the asset, the operators need to know precisely what this tool is capable of. Having already tested the system response when quickly shifting production objectives, replacing a catalyst inventory or dealing with major changes in feed composition following the securing of an opportunity feed at a cheap price will allow envisaging the future with a level head and ensure success. Experience is thus essential. Within opportunity feeds, there is also bio-based feedstocks. Co-processing fossil and renewable feed allows a greater sustainability into the FCC process. Last and certainly not least, knowing that a licensor such as Axens with a broad portfolio and extensive experience on the most exotic and heaviest feeds is available to help you will certainly bring a higher level of confidence in any operator’s confidence in their capability to remain ahead of the competition.

Are there any regions you would describe as “leaders” in the FCC market? How do Asian markets compare with other global regions?

The Asian area seems to be leading the effort currently simply due to the sheer number of units (and associated capacities, surpassing the previous average sizes). They also benefit, because those units have been brought online more recently, of the latest improvements and technology features towards propylene maximization.

Of course, some of those features are also accessible for operators of previous generations on FCCUs.

What do you think the biggest changes to the FCC market will be in the next 3 – 5 years?

We are already facing a big change and challenge, which is to depart from a fuels-centered production and enter the petrochemical market with FCCUs. The next challenges will probably consist of 1/ maximizing the production of petrochemical bases from the FCC and 2/ using idle capacities to process opportunistic feeds that were never envisaged before in a FCCU. Naturally, as a Process Licensor, Axens has the capability to accompany any customer in such explorations.