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Designing atmospheric crude

distillation for bitumen service
Oil sands add complexity to separation units and require a new approach
M. GRANDE and M. GUTSCHER, Fluor Canada Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, Canada

itumen blends derived from the Alberta oil sands are becom- • Increased salt hydrolysis in the fired heater as desalting a
ing a significant feedstock for North American refiners. In dilbit feed has not been proven commercially reliable.
2009, Canada produced about 1.5 million bpd of raw bitu-
men with about 0.46 million bpd of bitumen blends exported to Processing issues. Processing bitumen blends, particularly
the US.1,2 This export figure becomes even larger when consider- dilbit containing Athabasca bitumen from the Alberta oil sands
ing bitumen blends that are commingled with conventional heavy that is the focus of this discussion, requires specific considerations
oil and are, therefore, classified as conventional heavy oil, such as that impact the design of a crude unit within an upgrader or the
Western Canadian Select (WCS). The steep production decline revamp of such a unit within an existing refinery. Revamp consid-
from Mexico’s Cantarell field and Venezuela’s recent shift toward erations may include existing crude units that will process various
non-US markets, such as China, could make securing supplies bitumen blends with other conventional feedstocks. In the case of
from Canada more attractive.3 Many US refineries in the Gulf an upgrader, this unit is often referred to as the diluent recovery
Coast area are already configured to process heavy oil and a pipe- unit (DRU) because the recovered naphtha/gas condensate is
line network is already established to transport oil sands produc- recycled as transportation diluent. Refiners processing dilbit or
tion to refineries located within Canada as well as in the US West, other feeds may also sell a portion of the recovered naphtha/con-
Midwest and Gulf Coast areas.1 Additional pipeline capacity has densate as transportation diluent as opposed to further refining
been recently completed to the US Midwest with additional pro- this material for the gasoline pool or as a petrochemical feedstock.
posals for other areas, including the Gulf Coast, indicating that Due to a shortage of diluent in Alberta in 2009, more than 60,000
more refiners will have access to feedstocks containing bitumen. bpd of diluent was returned to Alberta by rail from the US.1 The
completion of the Enbridge Southern Lights diluent pipeline will
BACKGROUND provide the capacity to deliver 180,000 bpd of diluent to Alberta
Bitumen from the Alberta oil sands has an extremely high from the US Midwest. Furthermore, with the use of the Capline
viscosity (typically approaching 1 x 106 cSt at 15°C) and a high pipeline, diluent from the US Gulf Coast area will be able to con-
asphaltene content approaching 20 wt% C5 insoluble. Conse- nect with the new Enbridge pipeline via the Chicap pipeline.1
quently, transportation of bitumen is accomplished by forming
blends with a diluent comprised of gas condensates or naphtha DRU COLUMN DESIGN
(C5+) that is termed dilbit, with synthetic crude oils termed syn- The main objectives of a DRU column are to recover transpor-
bit, or a combination thereof referred to as syndilbit. The blend- tation diluent remaining in the column feed (after preflash) and to
ing ratio for dilbit is typically about 70:30 bitumen to diluent by fractionate distillates, such as atmospheric gasoil (AGO), from the
volume; whereas for synbit, the blending ratio is typically 50:50. bitumen feed that can be processed directly in a hydroprocessing
These blending ratios are based on meeting pipeline specifications unit. To achieve these objectives, a typical column configuration, as
of 18°API and 350 cSt. Bitumen from the Alberta oil sands is shown in Fig. 1, consists of a diluent rectification section, an AGO
similar in gravity but typically much more viscous than the “extra pumparound section, an AGO product-side stripper, an AGO
heavy oil” produced from Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt. wash section and an atmospheric residue (AR) stripping section.

Challenges with bitumen. Some other challenging proper- Naphtha rectification section. The degree of fractionation
ties of bitumen from the Alberta oil sands include: required between the recovered naphtha in the DRU column
• Higher fouling tendencies and a lower thermal stability than overhead and the AGO product is dependent on whether the
other higher hydrogen-content crudes due to a high aromatic con- recovered naphtha will be further refined or will be returned as
tent, particularly asphaltenes transportation diluent. If the recovered naphtha is further frac-
• Large atmospheric residue (AR defined as 343+°C TBP) con- tionated and refined, the downstream naphtha processing units
tent of approximately 85 vol% will determine the naphtha endpoint and the sharpness of frac-
• High total acid number (TAN) value of approximately 2.5 to 3.5 tionation required. When the recovered naphtha is returned for
mg KOH/g, a high sulfur content of approximately 4.5 wt% to 5 wt%, transportation purposes, the degree of fractionation between the
and a high nitrogen content of approximately 0.3 wt% to 0.55 wt% recovered naphtha and the AGO product is typically determined


I 63
based on the percentage of diluent recovery desired while main-
taining a total recovered diluent composition that is essentially the
Not the length is important … same as the originating feed diluent, i.e., provide sufficient frac-
tionation gap between the diluent and the AGO products. As the
…but the technique initial boiling point of bitumen typically resides in the kerosine
boiling range, providing this fractionation gap is easily achievable
■ Abstain based on the typical boiling range of transportation diluent.
from drive shafts being long and susceptible to troubles If the naphtha is recycled for use as transportation diluent, the
■ Spare recovered naphtha from the DRU column overhead, together
needless shaft and guide bearings
with that of the preflash section, is typically routed to a reboiled
stripper to remove hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and other light mate-
■ Forget rials. The level of H2S stripping is dependent on the amount of
complex and cost-intensive seal technology cracked H2S formed in the fired heater and is a function of the
feed sulfur content and film temperatures reached in the fired
■ Require
heater. Significant diluent losses to the overhead of a stripper may
best available technology for a long service life be incurred if a stringent vapor pressure specification also applies.
and high availability For these cases, the recovered naphtha may be processed through
a refluxed column (i.e., a debutanizer) that will also achieve the
required H2S specification. The rectification section of a refluxed
column ensures that a high diluent recovery is maintained.

AGO PA and product stripping. The AGO pumparound

(PA) section removes a significant portion of cooling duty lower
in the column to help condense the AGO product and the AGO
wash oil sent to the wash section. The heat removed in the AGO

Preflash vapor

Sour water naphtha
if 2 or 20 meters – we are flexible

support and Stripping

steam AGO product
cable pipe
pressure / AR product
discharge line Column feed
from fired heater

FIG. 1 Typical DRU column configuration.

extremely short
drive shaft 20 120

15 114
Fired heater COT, COTMax +/- °C

10 108
Diameter DBase, %

5 102

0 96

-5 90
-10 84

-15 78
25 35 45 55 65 75 85
Diluent preflash diluent feed, %
HERMETIC-Pumpen GmbH ™ P.O. Box 1220 ™ D-79191 Gundelfingen ™ FIG. 2 Impact of diluent preflash on fired-heater COT and column

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PA section reduces the vapor traffic and the resulting required the preflash for a fixed AGO yield. Trays are best suited to achieve
column diameter of the diluent rectification section while pro- multiple stages of fractionation in this section.
viding higher heat recovery than that available from the col- The bottoms stripping section requires a smaller diameter rela-
umn overhead. The AGO withdrawn from the DRU column is tive to the upper sections based on the steam and stripped hydro-
steam stripped in a product side stripper for flash point reduction. carbon vapor loading. However, to minimize column height, using
The TAN content of the AGO material is typically about 2 mg a full-diameter sump is more practical for providing the required
KOH/g. This TAN content requires upgraded metallurgy for this AR product residence time. An internal cylinder may be utilized
column section, as well as for the hot portions of the AGO PA with multi-pass trays (preferably two-pass) that minimize liquid
and product circuits. stagnant zones with suitable active and fractional hole areas that
will minimize fouling and maximize tray efficiency.
AGO wash section. The degree of fractionation required
between AGO and AR products is based on the desired distillate PREFLASH TARGET CONSIDERATIONS
yield and endpoint specification (ASTM 95% temperature). The Due to the large amount of transportation diluent in the dilbit
yield of AGO and its associated endpoint is determined by the feed, a preflash system is often applied. The preflash removes a
level of distillate hydrotreating required to meet distillate product substantial portion of this diluent to lower the flow through the
specifications while minimizing AGO material in the AR product. remaining preheat circuit and the fired heater, as well as to reduce
The objectives of the wash zone are to minimize AGO product the DRU column diameter.
endpoint by rectifying the flash zone vapor, and to de-entrain AR The main process parameters involved in achieving distillate
in the flash zone vapor. Minimizing the endpoint for a desired lift are diluent slip (diluent that is remaining in the column feed),
yield will improve the quality of the AGO product that is fed to a stripping steam and fired-heater duty at the permissible COT.
hydroprocessing unit. The wash section also minimizes the amount Diluent slip and stripping steam assist in stripping distillate mate-
of solids/ultra fines, which can be particularly troublesome with rial in the bitumen feed that allows for a lower fired-heater COT or
mined bitumen feedstocks, from entering the AGO product draw. an incremental gain in AGO yield. The fired-heater COT required
The selected wash-oil rate and design of wash section internals for reliable operation in bitumen service is typically lower than that
is important to ensure that the listed objectives are achieved. encountered when processing light conventional crudes.
The wash-oil rate should be based on the governing require- Consequently, optimizing the preflash target requires assessing
ment between the required rectification for the AGO endpoint the impact that the diluent slip and stripping steam rate have on the
specification and the required overflash for de-entrainment of AR/ fired-heater COT and column diameter. This assessment should
solids. Overflash is defined as the true reflux, excluding entrained also include the costs associated with producing the steam required
liquid that exits the wash section. Good fractionation between and treating the resulting sour water produced. These concepts in
the AGO and AR products is best achieved with a combination optimizing the preflash section can also be applied to the revamp
of a low specific surface area (grid) type packing that is placed as a of an existing crude distillation unit (CDU) to unload the upper
bottom layer followed by a higher specific surface area (structured) portions of the column and column-overhead system. These areas
type packing as a top layer. The resulting combination improves may become bottlenecks due to the high naphtha content of dilbit
the de-entrainment and fractionation ability while maintaining a feeds even with preflash processing schemes.
reasonable packed-bed height and minimizing fouling. The larger
open area (relative to trays) also allows packing to better handle Column diameter assessment. The impact that the
a sudden increase in vapor rate, such as an upset that can occur if diluent preflash has on the DRU column diameter and fired-
a liquid water slug is carried over in the feed to the fired heater. heater COT is illustrated in Fig. 2 This figure is based on the
column configuration discussed earlier with a fixed stripping
Bottoms stripping. Bottoms stripping improves the frac- steam rate as well as a fixed AGO yield and endpoint specification.
tionation between AGO and AR products and allows for decreas- Fig. 2 illustrates that the fired-heater COT is reduced as
ing the fired-heater coil outlet temperature (COT) or increasing diluent preflash decreases at a fixed stripping steam rate. However,

20 120 3.6 120

Steam rate
15 114 3.3 114
Fired heater COT, COTMax +/- °C

Stripping steam rate, wt% AR

10 108 3.0 108

Diameter, % DBase
Diameter DBase, %

5 102 2.7 102

0 96 2.4 96

-5 90 2.1 90
-10 84 1.8 Diameter 84

-15 78 1.5 78
1.25 1.75 2.25 2.75 3.25 3.75 4.25 25 35 45 55 65 75 85
Stripping steam rate, % AR Diluent preflash, % diluent feed

FIG. 3 Impact of stripping steam rate on fired-heater COT and FIG. 4 Impact of diluent preflash and stripping steam on column
column diameter. diameter.


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this reduction is obtained at the expense of significantly increasing This figure is based on the column configuration discussed earlier
the column diameter due to the additional diluent feed (vapor with a fixed AGO yield and end-point specification.
traffic) to the column. Fig. 4, as expected from Figs. 2 and 3, illustrates that column
The higher (and lighter) content of diluent in the column feed diameter is reduced when diluent preflash is maximized. This
provides marginal incremental lift with single-stage separation trend is observed up to a preflash value of approximately 80%.
that occurs in the flash zone. This single-stage separation, coupled At this high level of preflash, limitations of the overhead system
with the resulting relative volatility of the diluent mixture, does to maintain column reflux and a margin above water dew point
not effectively reduce the required fired-heater COT when the become a concern. For a two-stage condensing configuration (as
resulting impact on column diameter is considered. Consequently, shown in Fig. 1), as the amount of preflash increases, the hydrocar-
fired-heater designs that allow for an incrementally higher COT bon flowrate at the column overhead decreases and the steam rate
while maintaining suitable film temperatures and residence times increases. This combined effect significantly increases the steam
will significantly reduce the required column diameter due to the partial pressure, which reduces the amount of condensable material
allowable diluent reduction in the column feed. available for column reflux at a fixed condensing temperature. At
Achieving this incrementally higher COT may also have a sig- a diluent preflash of about 80%, the net overhead liquid product
nificant impact when considering the revamp of an existing CDU. available from the reflux drum is fully consumed by the reflux
Any modifications to the fired heater that will achieve a higher requirement. To increase preflash beyond 80%, the reflux tempera-
COT will allow for a higher preflash (practicality needs to be deter- ture must be reduced and/or AGO PA duty must be shifted to the
mined on a case-by-case basis). This higher preflash will unload the overhead system. Reducing the reflux temperature is not desirable
upper portions of the column and column-overhead system that as this quickly eliminates any margin between the reflux tempera-
may result in a higher dilbit feed throughput to the existing unit. ture and the water dew point temperature of the column overhead.
The impact that the stripping steam rate has on column diame- This reduced reflux temperature may lead to water condensing in
ter and fired-heater COT is illustrated in Fig. 3. This figure is based the first-stage overhead drum. Shifting the PA duty to the overhead
on the column configuration discussed earlier with a fixed-column condenser increases the vapor traffic in the naphtha-rectification
feed diluent content as well as a fixed AGO yield and endpoint section, which will increase the required column diameter, revers-
specification. Fig. 3 illustrates that the fired-heater COT is signifi- ing the trend of increasing preflash. Furthermore, shifting the PA
cantly reduced as the stripping steam rate increases. Furthermore, duty reduces the amount of high-level heat that can be recovered
the corresponding column diameter increase is not as significant from the column through heat integration.
as that required to achieve the same effect by increasing the diluent
content in the column feed (see Fig. 2). The stripping steam pro- PREFLASH TARGET OPTIMIZATION
vides more incremental lift due to its higher relative volatility and Considering the impact that preflash has on the DRU column
multiple stages of fractionation provided in the stripping section. diameter, the overall preflash target can be optimized with the
Another advantage that the stripping section stages provide remaining unit capital and operating costs. This optimization
is sharper fractionation between the AGO and AR products. should consider the cost of steam required for stripping, the
Consequently, the combined vapors from the stripping and flash operating cost to treat the resulting produced sour water and any
sections require less rectification in the wash section. If the wash- environmental issues/limitations in water usage.
oil rate is dictated by the AGO endpoint (i.e., the rectification The preflash target will also have implications on the heat-inte-
requirement discussed earlier), the required wash-oil rate will gration scheme. As the diluent preflash is increased, the preheat
decrease. This decrease will further lower the required fired-heater temperature required for preflash can increase significantly. For
COT because less bitumen material needs to be lifted to supply the example utilized in the earlier figures, the preheat temperature
the required wash-oil rate. required for a total diluent preflash of 55% is 185°C and increases
The disadvantage of significantly increasing the stripping to 235°C for a total diluent preflash of 80%. These temperatures
steam rate is the increased operating costs associated with supply- are at the second stage of a two-stage preflash drum configuration.
ing steam and treating the additional produced sour water. Fur- The preheat temperature(s) required to achieve the desired pre-
thermore, the water dew point of the column overhead increases flash can have a significant impact on the heat-recovery arrange-
and needs to be addressed in the design of the overhead system. ment and on the utility heat and/or fired heater duty. Therefore,
With the fired-heater COT set to the constraint established, the resulting heat integration scheme, including the cost benefits
the required column diameter vs. diluent preflash and stripping of using utility heat and the desired flexibility in preheat/preflash
steam rate may be determined. Fig. 4 illustrates this relationship. control, should be considered.

Single-stage preflash system Two-stage preflash system Preflash configuration. The preflash
target may be achieved with either a single-
Preflash vapor Preflash vapor
or multiple-stage preflash configuration, as
illustrated in Fig. 5. A preflash column is
Dilbit Column Dilbit Column not generally required due to the significant
feed feed feed feed volatility gap between the portion of trans-
portation diluent preflashed and the bitu-
men. Preflash drum(s) will provide adequate
separation within the range of preflash levels
presented in the earlier examples without
FIG. 5 Preflash configurations. impacting the desired fractionation between
the diluent and the AGO products.


To minimize fouling and provide reliable parallel flow control single-stage system. These reductions are achieved at the expense
for multiple heat-exchanger services and fired heater, single liquid of adding a second-stage flash drum and pump. The intent is to
phase dilbit preheat is desired. Single-phase dilbit preheat should reduce cost with the reduction in heat-exchanger design pressures
be maintained through to the inlet of the preflash flow control and piping flange ratings permitted by a two-stage configuration.
valve(s) and the inlet of the fired-heater pass control valves. To Fig. 6 illustrates the reductions in vapor pressure achievable
suppress vaporization at the required preheat temperatures, an with a two-stage system by plotting the resulting vapor pressure
adequate pump head must be supplied with the dilbit control vs. the desired preflash with a single- and a two-stage flash-drum
valve(s) placed at the back (i.e., hot) end of the preheat circuit(s), configuration. For the two-stage configuration, the first-stage flash
immediately upstream of each stage of preflash. is maintained constant with the objective of only removing all free
water resulting in a first-stage preflash of approximately 27%. To
Design. Dilbit feeds contain water and light-diluent compo- achieve the total desired preflash, any additional diluent flash is
nents that significantly increase the feed vapor pressure (par- generated with the second stage.
ticularly water). To achieve higher levels of preflash, the required
preheat temperatures increase, resulting in very large increases in 4,000
Single stage
the feed vapor pressure. An advantage of the two-stage configu- 3,500
ration is that the desired total preflash can be controlled at the
second stage, allowing the first-stage preheat temperature to be

Vapor pressure, kPaA

selected independently of the total desired preflash. The preheat 2,500
temperature for the first stage can be selected with the objective
of only removing all of the free water normally present in the feed,
thereby minimizing the vapor pressure of the first stage. 1,500 Second stage
Minimizing this vapor pressure will minimize the result- 1,000
ing operating pressure required to suppress vaporization in the First stage
first-stage preheat circuit. The desired total preflash is then fully 500
accomplished in the second stage at a comparably lower vapor 0
pressure than that required with a single-stage configuration. 25 35 45 55 65 75 85
Diluent preflash, % diluent feed
Consequently, the head requirement of the preflash feed pumps
as well as the design pressures of downstream exchangers/piping FIG. 6 Effect of diluent preflash on vapor pressure.
in both stages for a two-stage system are reduced compared to a

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Fig. 6 illustrates that the resulting exchanger design pressures, A higher than expected feed-water content will affect the per-
piping flange ratings and combined pump-head requirements for formance of the preflash section and column overhead system
the single-stage preflash configuration become much greater than for both preflash configurations. A higher feed-water content
for the two-stage configuration as the diluent preflash increases. will alter the preflash temperatures and may affect the amount
Consequently, a two-stage configuration may become more of diluent preflashed. The additional steam entering the column
appealing for higher levels of diluent preflash. For integrated mine- overhead system from the preflash section may increase the over-
upgrader facilities, where higher unit feed dilbit ratios are encoun- head system pressure, increase the offgas rate (resulting in lower
tered, it may be desirable to achieve a much higher diluent preflash diluent recovery and possible venting to the flare) and signifi-
to maintain a similar optimum diluent slip to the DRU column as cantly increase sour-water production that could accumulate in
in a segregated upgrader/refinery facility. Therefore, a multi-stage the overhead drum. These consequences for the preflash section
configuration is even more appealing for integrated mine-upgrader and column overhead system should be evaluated to determine
facilities than for a stand-alone refinery or upgrader. if design adjustments to minimize these impacts are warranted.

Free water issues. Free water that is not removed from a DRU COLUMN OVERHEAD SYSTEM DESIGN
diluted bitumen feed may cause significant damage to the fired The objectives of the overhead system are to condense the
heater and/or to the DRU column due to the heater’s ability to DRU column overhead and preflash overheads; supply column
rapidly vaporize the free water. At the very least, if water is unex- reflux; and separate water and any noncondensable gases present
pectedly present at the heater inlet control valves, it will likely form due to cracking reactions (thermal decomposition) in the fired
steam, thus creating two-phase flow and control difficulties with heater. Design of the overhead system should mitigate corrosion
the heater pass control valves. Consequently, a two-stage preflash to maximize equipment service life while providing an operation-
configuration that removes all feed water in the first-stage flash ally reliable design. HP
offers an additional benefit. With this design, should a slug of feed Extended version avaiable online at
water enter the unit, the second-stage flash will reduce the risk of
free water breaking through to the final preheat circuit upstream Marco Grande is a principal process engineer with Fluor Canada Ltd., Calgary,
of the fired heater. However, both single- and two-stage preflash Alberta, Canada. His experience is in bitumen/heavy-oil upgrading and downstream
configurations that are designed for a high level of diluent preflash refining. He holds a BSc degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alberta.

(i.e., hotter preflash temperatures) will operate with a margin above Matthew Gutscher is an engineer in training (EIT) in the process engineering
the expected water dew point and will consequently provide some group with Fluor Canada Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a BSc degree in
flexibility in removing a higher than expected feed-water content. chemical engineering from the University of Alberta.




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