The image of a bucket being filled doesn’t present itself as the most obvious symbol of cutting-edge industrialisation.
But it’s the one that fluid flow expert Brendan Robson employs to explain the key role of traceability in the oil and gas industry and, by extension, the need to refine and scrutinise practices in order to help improve the processes that optimise plant efficiency.
In the downstream arena, traceability is key to the measurement of petroleum products within the refining process, storage, distribution and their application. Calibration of the measurement devices provides proof of performance to support such processes, explains Robson, project engineer at TÜV SÜD National Engineering Laboratory (NEL).
“The scope of traceability can range from the refinery to the petrol station forecourt, or from the gas network into a householder’s home. Take flowmeters, as an example, where the quantification of product movement is essential for processes, energy determination, and, of course, money,” he outlines.
“The pinnacle of the flow measurement traceability pyramid is basically timing how long it takes to fill a bucket and weighing the result. Not very glamorous. “However, it is surprisingly complicated from a metrology point of view since flow is a derived quantity.”
This depends, Robson reminds us, on a collection of measurements: mass, time, temperature, pressure, fluid and material properties among others.
“Each of these quantities need their own calibration pedigree, so full traceability of a flow meter calibration requires an extended family of pyramids [of traceability]. The number of calibration certificates can grow exponentially into thousands of documents in such a traceability tree.”
It illustrates the essential role that national measurement institutes play and the necessity for government and public bodies to support their operation and credibility.
“If a country does not support its own national standard, then it may not control the foundations of its markets and harbour an unhealthy dependence on foreign services. If traceability is overlooked, then there is no impartial verification and the chain is broken.”
Failure to safeguard this risks indefensible meter performance, reduced customer or stockholder confidence and profit volatility, says Robson [pictured], when international trade relies on such traceability chains to provide “consistent, stable and reliable commerce”.
Current circumstances have rendered these considerations all the more essential. Continuing instability in the Middle East affects both price and availability of oil and gas product. Last year’s drone attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil and gas fields temporarily halved the country’s crude oil production.
Little was said at the time, noted industry commentator ICIS Chemical Business, about the likely consequences for ethane or liquified natural gas production. An estimated 10% of global ethylene supply was threatened with Saudi’s SABIC reporting feedstock disruptions of nearly 50% across its sites in the country.
Complementing those upstream pressures on fluctuating supply and cost of raw materials are the environmental concerns, which have manifested themselves in initiatives such as reducing sulphur content in fuel.
From this year, the International Maritime Organisation’s IMO 2020 has reduced the maximum permissible sulphur content from 3.5% to just 0.5%.
This change will put many refineries around the world under pressure says AspenTech industry marketing director Ron Beck. Refineries need to take action now to mitigate the challenges associated with IMO 2020 and to take advantage of the opportunities it potentially offers, he warns.
Digi-ing for victory
As with calibration or measurement, it is technological improvements allied to data analysis and digitalisation that offer the way forward.
“With the short runway ahead of us now, technology is the main tool available that can improve your refinery’s position in the next few months and as the new regulation begins to create some economic and pricing disparities,” Beck emphasises.
“For refineries that have the right processes and configurations in place, the advent of IMO 2020 is likely to present an opportunity to capitalise on higher margins driven by imbalances in supply and demand.”
For those deterred from digital spending by the prospect of increased budget demands Beck offers the advice that digitalisation can be implemented in a much shorter time frame than major capital investment. The returns can be speedy too, he explains.
“Based on industry analyst projections regarding the diesel/ fuel oil price spread between 2020 and 2025, a typical 100k barrel/day refinery that is able to increase diesel production by 1% by lifting molecules up from the fuel oil pool, would generate $36 million of incremental profits.
“We have seen some businesses achieve a 10% increase in diesel production through better use of advanced control and also dynamic optimisation.”
The first thing refiners need to focus on is expanding plant availability. Harnessing predictive analytics technology will reduce downtime and provide early and accurate warnings “of degradation and impending asset failure”, says Beck.
Having secured the plant against unnecessary stoppages, the challenge is then to optimise it by making use of advanced process control and dynamic optimisation solutions.
“To maximise margins, refiners will need planning solutions in place that enable them to continuously evaluate and seek out the most profitable crudes. This whole planning process will be key for refiners moving forward.”
Refineries will need to have the flexibility and agility and control to be able to adjust production depending on what the most profitable scenario, he adds.
Leading oil and gas exporter Kuwait embarked late last year on one of the largest projects of this kind, employing Honeywell Process Solutions as the main automation contractor for its Petrochemicals and Refinery Integration Al Zour (PRIZe) scheme.
As Rachad Abdallah, president for Honeywell in Kuwait, puts it: “At the integrated refining and petrochemicals complex at Al-Zour, we are leveraging our experience and technologies to help develop one of the most ambitious initiatives in the region. This project will help transform Kuwait into a pioneering manufacturer in the downstream oil and gas industry.”
Effective process control also enhances the critically important matter of scheduling, adds Beck: “Once the refinery has decided which crudes to buy and process, it also needs to work out what blend of crudes it should process on any given day. The latest scheduling tools can be instrumental in streamlining this process.
Each of these quantities need their own calibration pedigree… The number of calibration certificates can grow exponentially into thousands of documents in such a traceability tree
Brendan Robson, project engineer at TÜV SÜD National Engineering Laboratory
“We have seen significant recent increases in the adoption of APC (advanced process control), planning and scheduling. The latest software solutions go further, aligning APC with planning and scheduling, enabling unified production optimisation for refineries.
A key element of this, he says, is ‘dynamic coordination’ capable of pinpointing economic incentives every minute across multiple units, critical for refineries and plants “where oil & gas operational complexity and changing conditions are the norm”.
With the likes of Lloyd’s Register flagging up the particular lack of a workforce with an adequate skillset in the UK oil and gas sector, safety issues will come still more to the fore. And given the likely intense competition for new recruits, so too will means of reducing direct human intervention in the ‘Four Ds’ – work seen as dirty, distant, difficult and dull.
No surprise then that drone technology was to the fore at Automa, the oil and gas automatisation and digitalisation conference. Notably Israeli firm Percepto’s ‘Drone in a Box’ (DiB), which has automated routine inspections for refineries – flying up to 15 missions daily at one site – as well as providing early alerts for safety and intruder incidents.
Chief commercial officer Ariel Avitan explains: “A drone can take off and conduct a detailed inspection of a stack or section of pipeline, before returning to its base station to recharge and then flying a perimeter surveillance patrol. “What’s more, in an emergency situation [it] can be rapidly diverted from its current mission and dispatched to the scene.”
The sector is facing more pressure than most others from the combination of geopolitics, environmentalism, labour and resource availability, with many companies seeking a partial or full transition from ‘dirty’ energy. Yet it is those very constraints that have been instrumental in promoting innovation and transformation.
Built to last
Oil valves pioneer Michael Oliver left school at 15 and still turns up for work 67 years on…
More than 40 years after setting up shop in a garage, valves entrepreneur Michael Oliver distributes his products to 80 countries and still works a six-hour day at the age of 82.
After leaving school at 15, he became an apprentice in Salford and discovered his flair for engineering. Following a stint in America designing machines he set up Oliver Valves in 1979, starting with the development of a needle valve for high pressure applications that eliminated the leaks that had dogged other products.
His first order – nearly 600 valves for a Chinese gas plant – had to be packaged in empty cornflakes boxes his wife Ann secured from a local supermarket. Having made his first million in 1987, his company now employs more than 300 people at its Knutsford base, handles more than 8,000 products and is an approved supplier to many of the world’s major oil and gas operators.
Asked for his formula for success, he says: “If you want something doing right, you do it yourself.”