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Canadian crude processing challenges

Vacuum unit design influences liquid volume yields, run length, product
yield and product quality when processing bitumen crude oils

Scott Golden Process Consulting Services LLC

he North American refining industry is Canadian crudes and none are operating a deep-
building or planning upgrades to take cut vacuum unit or have experienced the
advantage of lower costs and increasing challenges of high percentages of oil sands
supplies of heavy and extra-heavy Canadian bitumen.
crude oils, conventional heavy feeds like Cold Once additional coker capacity comes on
Lake and Lloydminster, and oil sands bitumen stream, Canadian heavy crude prices are likely to
crudes. Such projects include new coker capacity increase, as in previous refining industry expan-
and new or revamped crude/vacuum units. Most sions. Com-pounding this are tightening Middle
heavy crude projects require a complete new Eastern crude supplies caused by the demand for
vacuum unit because these feedstocks are future large grassroots construction in India and
extremely difficult to vapourise. Oil sands bitu- China. Furthermore, declining conventional
men presents the greatest challenge by far. To heavy Canadian crude production and large
realise heavy vacuum gas oil (HVGO) product future production increases in oil sands bitumen
TBP cutpoints of only 950F and meet a proba- will radically change the Canadian supply situa-
ble four-to-six-year run length requires the best tion. Oil sands bitumen crudes will dominate
available vacuum unit technology when process- supply. But these crudes require special
ing oil sands bitumen crudes. One thing is designconsiderations to maintain a reasonable
certain: low-capital-cost dry vacuum units will run length without significant economic loss.
suffer poor reliability and extremely low HVGO
cutpoints, and very likely both. Not all crudes are equal
Production upgrader experience proves oil Industry experience shows that presuming all
sand bitumen is even more difficult to refine heavy crude processing characteristics are alike
than conventional heavy crudes. Only a few is a gross mistake. Refiners in certain regions
refiners currently processing large volumes of such as the US began processing large amounts
Cold Lake and Lloydminster are achieving of Mexican Maya and Venezuelan crudes in the
moderately high cutpoints at or slightly above mid-1980s, and in the last ten years have begun
1000F. However, highlighting the industrys processing even lower API gravity and
casual attitude toward differences in crude char- Venezuelan upgrader bitumen-based crude oils.
acteristics, it is not unusual to hear: It doesnt Initial experience with these crudes can be best
matter which crudes will be processed. They all described as mixed. The learning curve has been
have about a 20 API gravity. What will be the very steep and painful. At worst, several industry
outcome? On-stream factors of months versus publications have documented run lengths of
years or a very low HVGO product yield, a much three to six months, a very low HVGO product
higher coker charge rate than expected and yield or extremely poor HVGO product quality.
higher incremental coke production of 1 wt% or Years of processing experience with Maya, BCF
more on bitumen. Today, these major economic 22/24 and similar heavy crudes have driven
consequences tend to be ignored, as price home many lessons, especially the need for addi-
discounts are high. Few refiners have any experi- tional investment to deal with the realities of
ence of processing high blend percentages of these feedstocks. PTQ Q1 2008 1

decrease the vacuum unit

heaters outlet temperature
 to 690F from its normal of
 760F when processing 30
 40% conventional heavy
Canadian with oil sands

bitumen crudes, to prevent

massive amounts of cracked
 gas production causing a loss
 of vacuum. This large reduc-
 tion in vacuum heater outlet
temperature dramatically

increased the coker charge

             rate. However, the coker at
WT this refinery is too small
relative to the increased
Figure 1 Whole bitumen TBP distillation curve coker charge rate. This may
still be profitable if the crude
price is low enough, but only
if the discounts remain very

Canadian crude supply will

0RACTICALHEATERLIMITo& change over the next 1015

 years from conventional
heavy to oil sands bitumen.

Bitumen crudes are blends
 of upgrader synthetic crude
or condensates and oil sands
 bitumen. Diluents are needed
to reduce the viscosity for

pipelining. The generic
 names are diluted bitumen
      (Dilbit) or synthetic bitumen
(Synbit), albeit each will
likely have its own name
Figure 2 Maximum HVGO cutpoint processing 100% Maya such as Albian Heavy.
Figure 1 represents a typi-
Since the late 1990s, high percentages of extra- cal TBP distillation for whole oil sands bitumen
heavy Merey, BCF 17 and other 1617 API (with some variability depending on production
crudes have been processed by a handful of US location). Excluding diluents, bitumen consists
refiners. Each has had to invest in process and of 1012 wt% distillates recoverable at near
equipment design changes to improve product atmospheric pressure, with the remaining 88
yields and meet original run length objectives. 90% feeding the vacuum unit. More than 55% of
Interim shutdowns have been necessary to the bitumen is not distillable even under opti-
decoke heaters, remove salt from the atmos- mum vacuum unit design. A state-of-the-art
pheric crude column, change coked packing in crude and vacuum unit will reduce the coker
the vacuum column, correct poor exchanger feed to approximately 57 wt% of the whole bitu-
network design and other problems. Only after men, but not much lower. Poorly designed
startup did it become apparent that low-capital- vacuum units will produce coker charge rates as
cost vacuum unit designs will not meet a high as 67% of whole bitumen and run lengths
reasonable run length or HVGO product measured in months, not years. Poor vacuum
cutpoints. Only recently, one refiner had to unit performance will result in incremental coke

2 PTQ Q1 2008

production of 12 wt % of the whole bitumen. some similarities. Relative to other crude oils, all
When crude oil costs are $50 per barrel, the oil sands bitumens have poor thermal stability
economic loss can be very high. and contain large quantities of asphaltenes with
varying stability. It is imperative that the crude/
HVGO product TBP cutpoint vacuum unit is designed with these realities in
The HVGO product cutpoint is used to assess mind. Oil sands bitumen generates significant
vacuum unit performance, with 1050F often amounts of cracked gas at 680F heater outlet
cited as the benchmark or design basis for new even with a well-designed double-fired heater.
units. In reality, actual vacuum unit cutpoints Maximum heater outlet temperatures are likely
vary from below 900F on extra-heavy crude to to reach only 710715F even with a fully opti-
over 1100F for light crudes, with the majority mised heater design. Moreover, asphaltenes
operating below 1000F even on moderately precipitate and coat the inside of the heater
heavy 2628 API gravity feeds. Feed character- tubes, causing skin temperatures to rise. This
istics control the potential cutpoint. The ultimately requires a shutdown to remove them.
maximum is determined by vacuum unit type To be sure, believing that a 1050F cutpoint can
and design. In the last 20 years, large amounts be achieved by processing large amounts of bitu-
of Maya have been processed by US refiners and men is akin to waiting for the Tooth Fairy to put
it continues to be one of the design-marker money under your pillow!
heavy crudes for recently announced Gulf Coast Recently, one refiner began processing oil
expansions, even though production from the sands bitumen through a dry vacuum unit. They
Mexican Cantarell field is in steep decline. quickly found the heater outlet temperature had
A fully optimised vacuum unit with heater coil to be reduced to 690F to prevent overloading of
and stripping steam, processing 100% 22 API the ejector system. Although a larger ejector
gravity Maya or similar Venezuelan crude, can system would have allowed a higher heater outlet
theoretically achieve cutpoints up to about temperature, there is a practical upper limit to
1085F because the vacuum heater can be oper- cracked gas production because the rate of coke
ated at 800805F (Figure 2). In reality, laydown in the heater tubes leads to
however, no refiner has yet met this figure hot spots. Furthermore, asphaltenes precipitate
because the units were designed dry without at a rate related to temperature and radiant
residue stripping and as a result of sundry other section fluid velocity. A higher velocity slows the
process and equipment design mistakes. Past rate of asphalt laydown, but there is an upper
and on-going practices of value engineering and limit due to tube bend erosion from solids.
scope rationalisation have prevented a fully opti- Processing oil sands bitumen will severely limit
mised vacuum unit from being built. the heater outlet temperature compared to
Interestingly, several Canadian heavy projects conventional heavy crudes like Cold Lake and
are being touted as designed to meet a 1050F Maya. This results in low HVGO product
HVGO product TBP cutpoint or even higher. cutpoints even with the best vacuum unit
Meeting this mystical cutpoint goal is challeng- technology.
ing enough with conventional heavy crudes, but Once the maximum heater outlet temperature
it is simply impossible when significant amounts is reached, incremental increases in HVGO
of oil sands bitumen are processed. cutpoint will be achieved through residue strip-
ping and low column operating pressure. The
Oil sands characteristics former can increase the HVGO product cutpoint
Specific oil sands deposits determine particular by up to 80F, depending on the steam rate and
processing characteristics and challenges. Some stripping section efficiency. When processing oil
deposits contain very high quantities of naph- sands bitumen, therefore, the vacuum unit
thenic acids and chlorides, whereas others do should be designed with a residue stripping
not. Furthermore, bitumen is produced by section.
mining or SAGD (steam assisted gravity drain- Oil sands bitumen requires special process and
age). The method used influences the amount of equipment design that incorporate low oil resi-
clay and sand in the finished product. dence time double-fired heaters, residue
Nonetheless, oil sands bitumen deposits do have stripping (Figure 3) and ejector systems capable PTQ Q1 2008 3

enough even with a very low residence time
heater. It should be obvious that processing high
percentages of bitumen through a dry conven-
tional vacuum unit is simply not practical unless
2EDUCED extremely low HVGO TBP cutpoints or run
lengths measured in months are acceptable.
ZONE The vacuum unit HVGO product the cutpoint
STEAM has a major influence on coker charge rate and
3TRIPPING coke production. A fully optimised vacuum unit
TRAYS will be able to reach about a 950F HVGO prod-
uct TBP cutpoint on whole bitumen using coil
steam to reduce the oil residence time, a double-
fired heater, residue stripping, low column
#OKERCHARGE operating pressure and other design considera-
tions. Refiners, assuming their new vacuum units
will meet a 1050F cutpoint, will be surprised
Figure 3 Residue stripping and coil steam (Figure 5) by an 8 wt% higher coker charge rate
on whole bitumen. Compared with a 1050F
of handling extremely large amounts of cracked design, a conventional dry vacuum unit will
gas (Figure 4). Without residue stripping, the achieve a cutpoint well below 900F, producing
HVGO product cutpoint will be limited by prac- as much as a 15% higher coker charge rate. At
tical heater outlet temperatures. These will be best, a dry vacuum unit will reduce the coker
very low even with the best heater technology charge rate to 67 wt% on whole bitumen charge.
and coil steam to reduce oil residence time. And
ejector systems sized for typical cracked gas Coke production
production of 0.20.3 wt% feed will not be large Increasing crude prices and lower light-heavy
crude differentials raise
the economic importance
Vacuum column FI of refinery liquid volume
yield. Since coke produc-
steam tion depends on process
technology and coke
production, minimising
it is essential. Coke has
little value and will likely
become a significant cost
FI factor as pressure
Non- increases to reduce CO2
gas flow emissions. Its production
is affected by the vacuum
Liquid ring unit HVGO product
compressor cutpoint, because the
HVGO boiling range
material processed
through the coker
Sour Condensable produces coke, in addi-
water hydrocarbon tion to influencing the
size of the coker unit.
Water Slop oil Each has major conse-
pump pump quences even though
they may appear unim-
Figure 4 Ejector system portant when Canadian

4 PTQ Q1 2008

crude is selling at huge

Coker unit coke produc-   o&4"0CUTPOINT
tion depends on feed 
composition, drum operat-  o&4"0CUTPOINT
ing pressure, recycle rate


and coker technology. For a

given coke drum pressure,
the recycle rate, coker tech- 

nology and feed composition 

determine coke production. 
Industry perception is that WT

coker feed MCR (microcar-

bon residue) and asphaltene             
content are the only factors WT
influencing coke production.
While they are indeed the Figure 5 HVGO TBP cutpoint comparison
main determinants, the
amount of HVGO boiling range material feeding
the coker also influences coke production. The
heaviest portion of the HVGO product produces heater
Wash zone
1520 wt% coke because it does not vapourise at
coke drum operating pressures. It must be ther- Reduced
mally cracked to get out of the drum. Therefore, Flash
any HVGO material not recovered in the vacuum zone

unit produces coke, reducing feed to the hydroc-

racker and lowering the overall refinery liquid
volume yield. When bitumen is $50 per barrel, a Coker charge
very high
2% increase in coke production on whole bitu-
men equates to about 1% on the Dilbit or Synbit
Figure 6 Dry vacuum unit
Dry vacuum unit design
Dry vacuum units do not use steam in the heater depends on the rate of coke formation, which is
and have no residue stripping in the column a function of the oil residence time and peak oil
(Figure 6). They have a lower capital and operat- film temperature for a given feedstock. The lower
ing cost, but are also unreliable, produce more the oil thermal stability, the lower the peak oil
coke and require larger-capacity coker units. film temperature before excessive thermal crack-
Since most designers and many refiners have ing occurs. Thermal cracking causes coke to
little experience with these extra-heavy Canadian accumulate on the inside of the heater tube.
crudes, dry vacuum units continue to be speci- Once the metal temperature exceeds its allowa-
fied. Defying common sense, the added ble maximum, the coke must be removed.
investment and operating costs of coil and resi- Vacuum heaters designed without steam have
due stripping steam are considered unnecessary. radiant section oil residence times of more than
Along with a woeful lack of experience, value one minute. Inexperienced designers will attempt
engineering continues to be a major driving force to compensate for a high film temperature by
behind poor decision-making, even though a specifying a radiant section average heat flux of
vacuum unit that operates well for only one 8000 Btu/hr-ft2 or lower. Even though this
month has a different real rate of return to one decreases the peak film temperature compared
that operates reliably for four to six years. with a heater designed for 10 000 Btu/hr-ft2, it
Dry vacuum units have several deficiencies, also increases the oil residence time by 25%. But
including the heater design. Heater run length the rate of coke formation depends on both the PTQ Q1 2008 5

Wet (or damp) units with
 coil steam only achieve
 higher cutpoints than dry
 2EALISTIC4"0CUTPOINTo& designs, because the heater
outlet temperature can be

operated 2030F higher

due to a reduced radiant
 section oil residence time.
 Coil steam also reduces the
 column flash zone oil partial
pressure, raising the HVGO

product cutpoint. Heater coil

steam increases the column
 size because it increases
WT vapour traffic and reduces
the vapour molecular weight.
Figure 7 Practical HVGO TBP cutpoint processing 100% oil sands bitumen crudes It also increases the ejector
systems size. Wet units with
heater coil steam and residue
Atmospheric stripping produce the highest
HVGO product cutpoint, and
best HVGO quality, for a
given HVGO product
cutpoint. Wet designs with
Low residue stripping will permit
Steam High P pressure a maximum HVGO product
cutpoint of 950F when
Vacuum using the best technology to
Transfer line process 100% oil sands bitu-
High head Vacuum men (Figure 7).
pump heater Vacuum units should
steam therefore incorporate both
coil and residue stripping
Figure 8 Heater coil and residue stripping steam (Figure 8) when
processing all heavy
peak oil film temperature and oil residence time. Canadian crudes. Coil steam reduces the radiant
Moreover, most designers continue to specify section oil residence time from over 60 seconds
single-fired heater tubes because they are to a much lower time, depending on the specific
cheaper, even though they dramatically increase heater design. An ultra-low- residence-time
the peak oil film temperature. The single-fired heater has only 1020 seconds in the radiant
tube peak heat flux is approximately 1.8 times section depending on the steam rate and design.
the average for the tube compared with a double- An optimised double-fired heater (Figure 9)
fired tube, which is only 1.15 times its average. should be designed for a higher average radiant
Dry vacuum heaters are thus a very poor selec- section heat flux of 1012 000 Btu/hr-ft2 to take
tion when the feedstock is not thermally stable. advantage of the more uniform heat distribution
around the tube to lower the residence time. The
Crude vacuum unit design higher heat flux heater will therefore have a
Vacuum unit process and equipment design lower oil residence time than the lower heat flux
determines run length, refinery liquid volume heater. The double-fired design allows a much
yield and product quality. The three types of higher average flux than a single-fired design,
vacuum unit are dry, wet (damp) without residue assuming the same limiting oil film temperature.
stripping and wet (damp) with residue stripping. Residue stripping (Figure 10) produces the

6 PTQ Q1 2008

highest HVGO product TBP cutpoint and lowest
metals. It maximises the refinery liquid volume
Pass #1 Pass #3
yield, reduces the size of the coker unit and Pass #2 Pass #4
achieves the longest run length. Residue strip-
ping increases the cutpoint by reducing the oil
partial pressure as the oil flows down through Outlet Outlet
tubes Double tubes
the stripping section. It produces a much higher Serpenting fired
HVGO product TBP cutpoint for the same flash tubes tubes

zone oil partial pressure as a unit designed with Double fired

coil steam only. More importantly, HVGO prod-
uct metals are much lower because the HVGO
product distillation 95% to endpoint tail is
reduced, since stripping vapourises a lower boil-
ing range material compared to the heater-only
case. Vacuum units designed with only coil steam
have a lower HVGO yield and higher metals. A Figure 9 Double-fired heater with low oil residence time
well-designed vacuum unit with coil steam and
residue stripping will produce a total vacuum gas
oil stream with 5070% lower metals at the $ISTILLATE $ISTILLATE
same cutpoint. Since many Canadian crude HEATER STRIPPER
projects also include a hydrocracker to process
the vacuum gas oil, minimising HVGO product
metals will dramatically increase catalyst life.
Today, few refiners process large percentages of 6ACUUM
conventional Canadian heavy crude and none #OIL
process high percentages of oil sands bitumen STEAM
crudes. The announced refinery upgrades that YIELDANDREDUCES
are in construction and those that will move
beyond the planning stages will eventually proc-
ess increasing volumes of oil sands bitumen.
Moreover, existing refineries designed for Maya
and Venezuelan crude will be affected by the
rapid production decline of the Cantarell field
and the geopolitical situation involving Figure 10 Vacuum residue stripping
Venezuelan supply. Thus, it is likely that even
some US Gulf Coast refineries will compete for Services LLC in Houston, Texas, USA.
Canadian crudes in the future. As heavy and Email:
mid-gravity crude price differentials tighten,
vacuum unit processing capability not crude
price alone will determine the winners and the Links
losers. Refiners building a fully optimised wet
vacuum unit with residue stripping will have a More articles from: Process Consulting Services
distinct advantage over those that build dry More articles from the following categories:
vacuum units. Revamps, Shutdowns and Turnarounds
Crude Vacuum Units Heavy Crudes
Process Modelling & Simulation
Scott Golden is a chemical engineer with Process Consulting PTQ Q1 2008 7