Scientific prowess leads to process expertise

By Mike Bacidore

Jun 21, 2017

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When it was founded in 1914, UOP commercialized Jesse Dubbs’ demulsification of oil to yield heavier fuel oil and asphalt. The byproduct of this was a 30% yield of gasoline, which was significantly greater than refining methods of the time. Originally founded by Chicago meat packer J. Ogden Armour as National Hydrocarbon, UOP entered the oil & gas processing arena on firm footing with Dubbs’ patented process in hand.

Fast forward to 2017. The world population has more than quadrupled from 1.7 billion to 7.5 billion, and UOP has quietly amassed a significant amount of historical data in an industry that has been arguably critical for the growth of civilization itself.

“UOP has been around 103 years,” said Rebecca Liebert, president of UOP (www.uop.com), who spoke at Honeywell Users Group 2017 in San Antonio, Texas. “We were formed to start the first real refining technology to turn crude oil to gasoline. Now, we’re talking a lot about connectivity and the convergence of the digital and the physical worlds.”

According to Liebert, we are at the forefront of the seventh energy revolution. “We’ve been through six revolutions that UOP has been part of,” she indicated. “Petrochemical was the third revolution. The fourth was the environmental space with unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters. Fifth was molecule management and getting the maximum yield from a barrel of crude oil in the 1970s. And the sixth was the natural gas revolution. We’re on the forefront of the seventh, and we have 103 years of UOP process data because it’s our process license that has generated that data.”

One of the significant trends that Liebert sees in the current refining industry is the convergence of fuel specifications around the Euro 5 standard. “Convergence of fuel specifications allows for transportability of fuels across the world. It will require all refineries to follow the Euro 5 standard.”

A second trend is the integration of petrochemicals. “Refiners are moving downstream, and the plastics guys are going upstream,” said Liebert. “The plastics industry is having to learn to be petrochemical manufacturers.”

Possibly the biggest trend is with liquid natural gas (LNG) and moving products around the world. Liebert cited the widening of the Panama Canal as a sure sign of the times.

Pardon the disruption

One of the disruptors in the industry is the influx of the entrepreneurial investors who focus on speed and standardization. “They’ll give some majors a run for their money,” said Liebert. “Also, Honeywell Connected Plant will be revolutionary, and those who get on it the fastest will be the winners. It enables outcome-based service solutions to help keep plants running.”

Developments such as the Honeywell Experion solution suite are designed to take plant automation off the critical path. “By using Experion, you can cut your control system implementation down by 30%,” she said. UOP can work with noncompetitors for monitoring with Honeywell Connected Plant. “We can pull in the data from equipment that is critical to our process but is not competitive,” said Liebert. “At UOP, we’re using IIoT in our R&D facility. In greater Chicago, we have two data facilities. We’re pumping millions of data points per minute. We use a lot of mini-reactor types of systems—a reactor smaller than a pen—and we can use it to test catalysts. We got that vision from the pharmaceutical industry. We can scale up to semi-work-type scales, and then we can go to full-scale.”

Any number of companies can all look at trends, but UOP’s advantages are in its 103 years of historical data and its scientific expertise. “If you can’t get at the science of the why—the fundamental kinetics and models that make it happen—you can’t get at the problem,” said Liebert. “We’ve built fault models into our logic. It’s not just taking data and putting a line through it. It’s looking at what happened and why. People don’t think of UOP as a software company, but we have some of the most advanced modelers in the world.”

And many more

When crude oil prices fell from more than $100 to $30, “It dried up cash flows, and projects were put on hold and cancelled,” recalled Liebert. “In 2015, projects really stalled. We’ve seen a nice rebound. I see crude prices staying between $40 and $60, but we won’t see $70 again for a while.”

As for the forthcoming eighth revolution, Liebert sees two potential paths on the horizon. “One could be natural-gas-to-ethylene or natural-gas-to-propylene,” she indicated. “There’s going to be a lot of natural gas available for a long time. Also, the world’s going to have to figure out energy storage. Solar and wind are going to need to be figured out. Large-level, grid-level storage is something we think a lot about.”

 

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