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Computers and Chemical Engineering 27 (2003) 1303 /1305

Process technology in the petroleum refining industry* current /

situation and future trends

Lincoln F. Lautenschlager Moro a
PETROBRAS, Petróleo Brasileiro S/A, Av. república do Chile, 65, 20035-900 Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil

Received 6 February 2003; accepted 7 February 2003


This paper analyzes the technology of process and production optimization in the petroleum refining industry. There is, virtually,
no refiner nowadays that does not use advanced process engineering tools to improve business results. The degree of maturity of
those tools varies greatly, and there are still many unsolved problems. For instance, advanced process control is considered a mature
technology, while the automatic generation of a scheduling of refinery operations is considered a goal to be achieved only in mid-
term. The current state of these technologies as well as the current needs of the industry and the expected future trends are presented.
# 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Petroleum refiningadvanced control; optimization; production planning

1. Introduction refiners do not possess enough experienced and trained

engineering manpower to implement new process opti-
The refining industry is currently facing a difficult mization tools or even to maintain the existing ones.
situation, characterized by decreasing profit margins, This has created a contradictory situation in which the
due to surplus refining capacity, and increasing oil benefits of advanced process technologies are widely
prices. Simultaneously market competition and strin- recognized, but insufficient resources are available to
gent environmental regulations are forcing the industry keep them adequately operating and to develop and
to perform extensive modifications in its operations. As install new ones.
a result, there is no refiner nowadays that does not use
advanced process engineering tools to improve business
results. Such tools range from advanced process control 2. Process control
up to corporate long-term planning, passing through
process optimization, scheduling, and short-term plan- Most refineries use a combination of standard PID
ning. controllers and linear multivariable process control
Despite the widespread use, and the existence of (LMPC) to solve the dynamic regulation problem.
quasi-standard core technologies for these applications, This configuration is considered adequate and, due to
their degree of commercial maturity varies greatly and that, the incentive for further developments has de-
there are many unsolved problems concerning their use. creased significantly. The attention has turned to assur-
This paper discusses these problems, the current ap- ing the correct use and achieving the highest
proaches used to solve them, and proposes research and performance of the installed applications. The main
development work in promising areas. trends in this area can be summarized as:
It is also worth mentioning that, due to pressure for (1) LMPC will continue to be the workhorse of
cost reduction and the misguided view that automation process control in petroleum refineries. It will be used
should indiscriminately lead to staff reduction, most to control the largest and most important process units.
(2) The availability of easy-to-use software and cheap
hardware will result in the use of MPC technology in
E-mail address: (L.F.L. Moro). smaller process systems. These are frequently highly
0098-1354/03/$ - see front matter # 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
1304 L.F.L. Moro / Computers and Chemical Engineering 27 (2003) 1303 /1305

nonlinear and not well understood, a set of factors that seen, for instance, in the work of Bettoni, Bravi, and
will expose the LMPC weaknesses. High-purity distilla- Chianese (2000).
tion columns and reactors with extensive fluid viscosity In the future, statistical models will probably be
changes are examples of such systems. restricted to those systems for which there are no
(3) The identification procedure, used to derive the phenomenological models available, either due to mod-
dynamic model for the controller, is currently the most eling difficulties or lack of commercial significance. As a
time consuming and error-prone stage in the MPC result of this trend, there is a large incentive for the
implementation process. Demands for on-line identifi- development of models and parameter estimation pro-
cation procedures of dynamic models, with minimum cedures to adapt them to reflect actual data.
disturbance to the plant behavior as well as for
controllers capable of dealing with large response times,
up to several hours, have already been identified. 3. Optimization
(4) MPCs will be more used to drive the units towards
the actual limits, where they exhibit stronger nonlinear According to Bodington (1995), the standard ap-
behavior. This situation will also expose technology proach to rigorous on-line optimization, involves the
limitations. periodic execution of an algorithm that gathers data
(5) There are still systems, like the ones that include from steady state operation, reconciles these data,
continuous and discrete variables (hybrid systems), that adapts some model parameters so that model results
cannot be tackled using current commercial packages. match the reconciled data, calculates the optimum
These systems will become more important in the future targets for the process, and modifies the process set
due to the integration of process units, characterized by points as necessary. The cycle time may vary from a few
continuous variables, with the refinery off-sites, where minutes to several hours.
yes /no decisions abound. Nowadays there are systems that include a semi
MPCs frequently have their operating range arbitra- rigorous optimization layer, consisting of simplified
rily constrained due to the existence of unmeasured phenomenological or regression models, between the
operating constraints. In general, operators deal with traditional rigorous optimization and the control system
such constraints using feeling and experience, which (Gouvêa & Odloak, 1998).
implies that a reasonably wide safety margin must be Despite good results reported in many papers, the real
maintained, resulting in nonoptimal operation. As an time optimization still lacks a general commercial
example of this kind of constraint, it is possible to name acceptance, because, in addition to the uncertainties in
the size and shape of the flames produced by a furnace economical data, several practical difficulties signifi-
burner. In general, the situation when a flame gets too cantly degrade the potential benefits. Among these
long and touches the furnace tubes or when the ignition difficulties one can cite the insufficiently detailed feed
occurs too far away from the burner tip, indicates that characterization, imprecise and poorly detailed models
the maximum allowable heat load has been exceeded. and the nonexistence of true steady state in reasonably
It will be necessary to develop measuring algorithms disturbed plants. This situation applies particularly to
to evaluate these unmeasured constraints. Such measur- the petroleum refining industry, but it can be expected
ing algorithms are referred to as inferences. that the gradual solution of these problems will result in
Inferences are usually used to predict product proper- the successful application of the RTO technology, as
ties, like densities, distillations temperatures, vapor already happens in the gas-based petrochemical industry
pressures, etc; and equipment performance measures, (Jones, Kelly, & Coker, 1998).
like flooding in distillation columns, heat exchangers It seems that the success of real-time optimization
fouling factors, catalyst activity, etc. demands better models more reliable feed characteriza-
As a result of the difference in cost, inferences are tion procedures and better algorithms for parameter
preferred to the on line analyzers for internal process estimation.
streams, and this situation will persist in the future.
Currently, most inferential calculations are based on
statistical models, while some rely on phenomenological 4. Production scheduling and planning
models, based on a mathematical description of the
physical and chemical phenomena involved in the The optimization of the production units does not
process. These models allow some extrapolation and achieve the global economic optimization of the plant.
can also be used for plant optimization, but are more Usually the objectives of the individual units are
complex and difficult to adapt to the actual plant conflicting and thus contribute to a sub-optimal and
behavior. The use of short-cut models can, in certain many times infeasible overall operation (Pinto, Joly, &
conditions, provide the best of each approach, as can be Moro, 2000).
L.F.L. Moro / Computers and Chemical Engineering 27 (2003) 1303 /1305 1305

The scheduling process defines the specific activities 5. Conclusions

to be performed over a time scale of days to weeks. It
defines the timing and volumes of the specific activities Planning, scheduling, optimization and control are
needed to meet the company’s objectives (Shobrys & fundamental business processes that must exist in every
White, 2000). production environment. Due to the large financial
Several factors have hindered automated scheduling incentives that can be derived from these processes,
systems and the lack of this computational technology is most refiners have implemented them in an automated
the main obstacle for the integration of production fashion, using commercial tools or tools developed in-
objectives and process operations. Unique operation house.
features pose significant complexity, which often results Many benefits have already been captured due to the
in very large models requiring long solution run-times. use of these tools, but there is a lot to be done to achieve
To compensate, assumptions are made, which ultimately their true potential, because they still exhibit many
yield operationally infeasible solutions. These factors weaknesses. The conclusions can be summarized as
result in significant cost to build, change, and maintain
models (Honkomp, Lombardo, Rosen, & Pekny, 2000).
As a rule, existing commercial tools for production . MPCs need automatic performance evaluation, bet-
scheduling are few, do not allow a rigorous representa- ter and less time-consuming identification proce-
tion of plant particularities, and are strongly based on dures, and expansion to cover nonlinear and hybrid
simulation. With the exception of some subsystems, for systems.
which artificial intelligence techniques or simplified . Inferences demand better phenomenological models
optimizations are included, these tools cannot generate and better algorithms and procedures of parameter
an automatic optimized schedule. estimation to allow operation closer to the actual
Even so, considering the expected benefits, in the
range of US$0.10/Bbl /US$0.15/Bbl (US$10 000 000/
. Process optimization still lacks many features to be
year for a typical refinery), companies still search for
widely accepted, but better models and more accurate
powerful, easy-to-use tools, which can solve detailed
feed characterization seem to be most urgent.
operational problems.
. Production scheduling: the quest for a tool, able to
Since the scheduling process integrates continuous
provide an optimized short-term schedule for an
and batch operations, the optimization technique to be
entire refinery, that can be directly implemented, still
used must be capable of dealing simultaneously with
continuous and discrete decision variables. Such pro- goes on.
blems embed a combinatorial aspect that makes them
exceptionally large and difficult to solve. As a result, the
practical application of these models is limited to
subsystems of a plant with considerable simplifications. References
In the refining industry, tactical planning is formally
defined by the extensive use of single time period LP Bettoni, A., Bravi, M., & Chianese, A. (2000). Inferential control of a
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Bodington, C. E. (1995). Planning, scheduling, and control integration in
nonlinear planning models to improve results, but have
the process industries . New York: McGraw Hill.
subsequently reverted to linear models due to the lack of Gouvêa, M. T., & Odloak, D. (1998). One-layer real time optimization
skills and staff for data validation and tool support. of LPG production in the FCC unit: procedure, advantages and
Another aspect that hinders the adoption of nonlinear disadvantages. Computers and Chemical Engineering 22 , S191 /
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process to include larger systems, like a group of ethylene plant operations through application of advanced control
refineries, instead of a single one. Another development and closed-loop real-time optimization. AIChE Spring National
that is underway is the inclusion of some scheduling Meeting (March, 1997).
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