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Old facility, new lease of life in Saudi Arabia

Global media attention on Saudi Aramco's bond sale and acquisition of Sabic obscures progress on routine ventures

Ras Tanura refinery on the Gulf coast is rooted in the history of Saudi Aramco. It began operations in 1945, just seven years after the first commercial discovery of oil in the kingdom-at the Dammam 7 well. In those days, the refining capacity was 60,000 bl/d. Today, processing crude oil from the Abqaiq, Safaniya and Manifa oil fields, it stands at 550,000 bl/d, and work is under way to upgrade facilities to ensure that Aramco continues to get value from the plant for many years to come. 

Driving through the 5 km² (1.9 mile²) maze of silver towers and chimneys that make up the refining complex you come suddenly across a construction site and the frame of a large rectangular-fronted building shell. Cranes tower over it, and helmeted workers in blue overalls swarm around. "In front of you," says Khalid Ameen, a senior Aramco engineer, "is our new project, our clean fuel project, under construction. If you came here four months ago, it was basically nothing. Currently we are preparing for a new CCR [continuous catalytic reformer]. It will be the biggest in the world, with capacity of 90,000 bl/d. We also have our new isomerisation plant here." 

The contract for the project is being carried out by Spanish contractor Tecnicas Reunidas. The first package covers isomerisation, naphtha hydro-treatment, CCR, interconnections, a flare system and buildings. The second focuses on utilities and offsites. 

Euro 5 spec

"The main objective is to sell cleaner products with less sulphur content," says Abdullah Bagar, engineering manager at Ras Tanura refinery. "We need to meet Euro 5 spec when it comes to gasoline-and diesel in particular. We used to produce diesel at 10,000ppm-a long time ago, if you can imagine that. It was a journey, and we reduced it first to 500ppm. Now our target is 10ppm or less. For gasoline it is about reducing the benzene content."

The expectation is that the clean fuel project will begin operating in 2021, after final preparations are made next year, and the infrastructure for delivering the new diesel to outlets in the kingdom is complete. This will entail a partial shutting down of the refinery. Because of the size of the refinery-one of the biggest in the world-it never undergoes a complete shutdown. Instead, each unit undergoes a detailed test and inspection after a designated number of years, variously between three and 10. The diesel hydrotreating unit (DHT) and the visbreaker were being submitted to this type of inspection when I visited the refinery. Plans for the installation of a second DHT are in the pipeline. 

Flaring down

While the focus today is on the clean fuel project, several steps have already been taken to reduce the environmental impact of Ras Tanura refinery. At a far corner of the site a strong wind was bending a small flame emerging from a flare stack. "You can see our flare to your right," says Ameen. "Of course, a refinery will always come with a flare. But we are very proud of our flare because it is very minimal. If you came here five or six years ago there was a huge flame. We worked hard to optimise it, and now you can hardly see it."

A little later we pass the hydrocracker"the money-maker of the refinery, basically. We take the gasoil, which is a very cheap product, and we convert it by cracking the large molecules into smaller molecules using hydrogen and very high temperature and pressure to produce diesel and naphtha. It processes 50,000 bl/d." 

Total diesel and gasoline output from Ras Tanura are around 220,000 bl/d and 200,000 bl/d respectively. But producing transport fuel is only part of what goes on there. Indeed, Aramco employees insist on referring to the Ras Tanura as a refining complex, rather than simply a refinery. Aside from two huge tank farms holding crude oil and products, the facility operates substantial crude oil stabilisation units. These extract gases from crude oil that arrives at the refinery but is intended for export from the nearby sea terminal, making it safe for transportation. These extracted gases, and those generated during the refining process are sent to compression plants, where they are separated into fuel gas and LPG. The fuel gas is used for heating processes within the refinery. 

Unique feature

At the same time, the LPG and NGL feed received from Abqaiq is further processed in NGL fractionation plants, where gases are separated into propane, butane, pentanes and natural gasoline-for export or for use in the Saudi petrochemicals sector.

"The refinery is unique," says Ameen,"because it has an NGL section. You rarely see a refinery with one. Additionally, we have a crude stabilisation unit. That is why Ras Tanura is not just a crude oil refinery, it is a crude oil complex."The refinery is also self-sufficient in electricity and passes on any excess to the Saudi grid. So, it also qualifies as an electricity supplier to the kingdom.

Keeping an eye on the Ras Tanura complex and deciding exactly what and how much it should be processing or exporting is the Oil Supply Planning & Scheduling (Ospas) unit at Aramco's headquarters in Dhahran. This is the master control room for the giant oil company, situated for security deep down inside one of the administration buildings on what Aramco has always called its Dhahran "camp". "Ospas is where we get our orders from," says Ameen. "What to increase, what to shut down. Just to keep everything running smoothly."

 

Source: Petroleum Economist

To picture Ospas, you have to put out of your mind the constant hum of machinery and traffic at the refining complex, the smell of oil in the air there and the strong, hot wind, and think instead of a large cool room, with a semi-circular wall ahead of you covered with electronic charts and diagrams. Here one can see at a glance the whole Aramco operation-for example, what ships are approaching or loading at the various terminals, how much power is being generated. Facing the lit-up wall are around a dozen figures at computer screens.

Room with a view

This control room will also monitor how much crude oil is needed at any particular time for loading at the giant Ras Tanura oil terminal. Here, 70m above the ground, at the top of a tall, thin tower with a white radar scanner on the roof, uniformed Aramco harbour pilots monitor and control the movement of tankers in the inbound and outbound lanes. The calm of the Port Control Centre, like an airport control tower with its darkened sloping windows and thick carpeting, is broken by the sound of ship-to-shore radio traffic, while pilots check on radar screens the movement of ships into Ras Tanura and nearby Juaymah terminals. Smaller ships tie up along side berths, while the larger ones (above 21m draft) take on oil at three sea islands off Ras Tanura or six single point mooring buoys off Juaymah.

Among the Aramco habour pilots, no women were to be seen. This is an increasingly unusual phenomenon. Back at the Ras Tanura refinery complex the percentage of female employees is growing fast, in a range of engineering, inspection and planning departments. "Female empowerment is something we believe in,"says Bagar. "As a country we were a little bit behind, but we are now on the right track. We are aggressively clearing our backlog in this respect."

So, with a clean fuels project close to delivery and a greater percentage of female employees, Aramco's vintage oil refinery is taking on a new lease of life.

 

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