Researchers seek to improve oil-refinery energy efficiency

Engineers in London are hoping to improve oil-refinery energy efficiency using new technology at a £9.3m BP Russia-funded research centre.

A team from Imperial College London has developed measurement equipment to gather more detailed data on the fouling of oil piping, which is the largest cause of heat loss in refineries and also increases CO2 emissions and creates safety problems.

It estimates that using the data in sophisticated computer models could enable it to increase energy efficiency by up to 15 per cent by improving the design of heat-exchange equipment and energy-recovery networks.

Prof Sandro Macchietto, joint director of the UNIHEAT project, said the new measurement technology would, for the first time, allow the engineers to closely replicate the conditions in an oil refinery on a large scale.

‘One of the reasons why it has been so difficult to make predictions in this area is because there have been very few really careful measurements in conditions that are close to the operating conditions,’ he told The Engineer.

‘If you lose measurements then you can only have very simple empirical models and you cannot use them to predict very accurately.’

Imperial’s High Pressure Oil Rig (HIPOR), designed by Imperial’s Prof Geoffrey Hewitt, measures a variety of factors related to crude oil as it travels through a pipe such as temperature, flow velocity and the deposition of impurities (fouling).

HIPOR is larger and more realistic in simulating refinery conditions than previous devices, said Macchietto.

‘Here we have a tube that is 2m long for heat exchange as opposed to 20cm long, which controls energy input through some very clever devices, and you can measure not just overall deposition but over time along the tube length.’

The figure of a 15 per cent increase in energy efficiency was based on research by the US Department of Energy that found a potential increase of 25 per cent if a variety of new technologies were implemented.

The Centre of Applied Research on Energy efficient Heat Exchange and Catalysis is funded by BP Russia and the Skolkovo Foundation, a non-profit organisation set up by the Russian government in 2010 to create a new science and technology development centre in Moscow.

The Imperial researchers have created a spin-off company called Hexxcell to find ways of commercialising the technology.