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Fuel Oil Quality

Refining is the complex series of processes that manufactures finished petroleum products out of crude oil and other hydrocarbons. While refining began as simple distillation, refiners must use more sophisticated additional processes and equipment in order to produce the mix of products that the market demands. Generally, this latter effort minimizes the production of heavier, lower value products (for example, residual fuel oil) in favor of lighter, higher value products (for example, gasoline).

The core refining process is simple distillation. Because crude oil is made up of a mixture of hydrocarbons, this first and basic refining process is aimed at separating the crude oil into its "fractions," the broad categories of its component hydrocarbons. Crude oil is heated and put into a still -- a distillation column -- and different products boil off and can be recovered at different temperatures. The lighter products -- liquid petroleum gases (LPG), naphtha, and so-called "straight run" gasoline -- are recovered at the lowest temperatures. Middle distillates -- jet fuel, kerosene, distillates (such as home heating oil and diesel fuel) -- come next. Finally, the heaviest products (residuum or residual fuel oil) are recovered, sometimes at temperatures over 1000 degrees F. The simplest refineries stop at this point. Most in the United States, however, reprocess the heavier fractions into lighter products to maximize the output of the most desirable products.

Additional processing follows crude distillation, "downstream" (or closer to the refinery gate and the consumer) of the distillation process. Downstream processing encompasses a variety of highly complex units designed for very different upgrading processes. Some change the molecular structure of the input with chemical reactions, some in the presence of a catalyst, some with thermal reactions.

In general, these processes are designed to take heavy, low-valued feedstock -- often itself the output from an earlier process -- and change it into lighter, higher-valued output. A catalytic cracker, for instance, uses the gasoil (heavy distillate) output from crude distillation as its feedstock and produces additional finished distillates (heating oil and diesel) and gasoline. Sulfur removal is accomplished in a hydrotreater. A reforming unit produces higher octane components for gasoline from lower octane feedstock that was recovered in the distillation process. A coker uses the heaviest output of distillation, the residue or residuum, to produce a lighter feedstock for further processing, as well as petroleum coke.

Crude oil with a similar mix of physical and chemical characteristics, usually produced from a given reservoir, field or sometimes even a region, constitutes a crude oil "stream." Most simply, crude oils are classified by their density and sulfur content. Less dense (or "lighter") crudes generally have a higher share of light hydrocarbons -- higher value products -- that can be recovered with simple distillation. The denser ("heavier") crude oils produce a greater share of lower-valued products with simple distillation and require additional processing to produce the desired range of products. Some crude oils also have a higher sulfur content, an undesirable characteristic with respect to both processing and product quality. For pricing purposes, crude oils of similar quality are often compared to a single representative crude oil, a "benchmark," of the quality class.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:56:57 ZULU