Building a better oil refinery

Is it possible to make major improvements in a refinery just by rearranging its equipment? Researchers at Purdue University think so, according to ScienceDaily:

The researchers have demonstrated their method on petroleum plants that separate crude, showing that 70 of the new sequences they identified could enable oil refineries to improve the energy efficiency of this step anywhere from 6 percent to 48 percent, said Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering.
“This is important because improving efficiency by 10 percent at a refinery processing 250,000 barrels per day would save in excess of $12 million a year if oil were priced at $70 a barrel,” said Agrawal, who is working with doctoral student Vishesh Shah. “And that’s just a single refinery. For the U.S. petroleum industry as a whole, this is a huge potential savings.”

The research, which appeared online this month in the AIChE Journal, uses a computer algorithm to determine the best arrangement for a refinery’s distillation units — the tall columns that separate out parts of oil by heating it. Chemical plants spend from 50 percent to 70 percent of their energy in such separation process.
“Separations are a huge part of what chemical plants do,” Agrawal said. “Improving efficiency by only a few percentage points translates into major savings. For every 100 barrels of oil distilled, nearly two barrels go into supplying energy for distillation. That’s a lot of oil.”
Most U.S. refineries and chemical plants are many decades old and grew in a sort of haphazard way over time as new processes were added and new technologies refined. So it makes sense there could be some easily attained efficiencies discovered by arranging the components differently. But it sounds like Agrawal is moving even beyond that.
The big test: putting the idea to work in an existing refinery.