Why Gazprom neft spent $50 billion on a delayed coking unit
Gazprom Neft announced the completion of another commissioning stage of the delayed coking unit at the Omsk Refinery. Behind this seemingly insignificant news is a real technological breakthrough. Russia is about to start producing needle coke, which is in great demand from metallurgical companies and which used to be supplied to our plants only from abroad. Forpost decided to find out whether this project is that important for the national economy and whether one of the flagships of the oil and gas industry will be able to get back the 50 billion rubles invested in it.
Back in the 1960s, Konon Lysenko, a professor at the Mining Institute, identified the problem of the depth of refining the oil that served as the raw material for kerosene production. At that time, it was only 33-35%, i.e., more than half of the total volume of black gold production was sent to the dump for lack of use. Of course, no one thought about ecology at the time, the only goal of profile studies was to increase the profitability of the process. The task was more urgent than ever before, as the world was on the verge of a real revolution in the world of lighting. Innovative kerosene lamps were rapidly replacing oil lamps.
By the end of the twentieth century, a conversion rate of just over 80% was considered very good in Russia. Although the majority of European and, even more so, American refineries by that time operated with completely different figures. Today the world's best practices approach the figure of 100%. That is, a truly efficient enterprise involves in processing almost all the remains of the primary processes (fuel oil and tar).
On the photo: Omsk Refinery. A complex for deep processing of fuel oil
One more option is to introduce technologies that allow producing high-margin products demanded by the market from the "waste". First of all, we are talking about delayed coking. The method that was patented in the USA 90 years ago is based on heating liquid feedstock to boiling point cutting off access of oxygen at the same time. A little over 60% of the output is light petroleum products, in particular gasoline. About 30% is a solid sediment, the chemical composition of which is close to coal. It is called petroleum coke and is used in metallurgy, for example, when melting cast iron. Needle coke is produced in a similar way, but from specially prepared raw materials, such as aromatized hydrocarbon distillates, and with more advanced equipment.
"Technologies for producing petroleum needle coke are more complicated and expensive than conventional coke. But their profitability is several times higher. For example, if a ton of conventional petroleum coke costs about 3.5 thousand rubles, then needle coke costs almost 20 times as much, about 60 thousand. The point is that it is distinguished by an ordered fiber structure and low sulfur and ash content. For comparison: the ash content in the usual coal coke is 20-30% and in the oil needle coke it is 0.5%. This makes it a highly demanded product, which is required for the manufacture of anodes and graphitized electrodes. They are used, for example, in lithium-ion batteries," says Vyacheslav Rudko, assistant of the Department of Chemical Technologies and Processing of Energy Sources at St. Petersburg Mining University.
On the photo: needle coke
He specifies that slow coking contributes to increasing refining depth to 98-99%. In other words, commissioning of the new unit will allow the Omsk Refinery not only to earn good money but also to approach the world’s best practices in terms of efficiency. It will also help reduce the negative impact on the environment. The concentration of chemical elements and their compounds in the air near the enterprises where the coking process takes place does not exceed the maximum permissible norms. That is why the authorities of Great Britain, Japan, and the USA, where the environmental legislation is rather strict, not only do not prevent the creation of such productions but also stimulate the development of the industry.
The main problem, due to which neither the USSR nor Russia ever had plants that produced needle coke, is very high science intensity. It is quite difficult to create the ideal conditions for introducing this technology and supplying the market with a highly liquid product. To do this it is not enough to find an investor, it is necessary to calculate all the parameters of the plant and determine the quality characteristics of the feedstock. Any error in the calculations can affect the properties of the final product and, consequently, its value. And the spread in this case, as we remember, is up to two thousand percent.
"One of the areas of work of the scientific Center for the Problems of Mineral and Technogenic Resources Processing at Mining University is exactly the research related to delayed coking. In the course of laboratory modeling of the process, we obtain data, the interpretation of which allows us to make adjustments to equipment regulations and raw material formulation to improve its quality. Based on our research, a producer can better understand under which conditions he is guaranteed to obtain a high-margin product. For example, my colleagues and I, as a result of post-graduate student Renat Gabdulkhakov's thesis, determined that adding polymer-organic functional additives can improve the quality of coke to Super Premium grade, from which graphitized electrodes of ultra-high power are produced," says Vyacheslav Rudko.
Today, Mining University has already signed two contracts for scientific support of field-specific projects. The university's scientists have published articles on this subject in authoritative scientific journals published by the American Chemical Society. There are no doubts that the demand for petroleum needle coke in the future will continue to grow, including in Russia. After all, experts are very optimistic about the prospects of the markets of electric steel and batteries, for the production of which this product is needed.
This means that our country is obliged not only to commission the first delayed coking unit in its history to produce needle coke but also to continue introducing the technology into production. Implementation of this initiative, naturally, will be possible only in case of closer integration of science and business.