No two Canadian refineries are the same. Here’s how they differ

Oct 27, 2016   | Categories: Energy, Fossil Fuels, Fuels, Refineries
In last week’s blog, we looked at how refineries make different commodities depending on their geographic locations, and the markets they serve. This week, we go further into what kinds of refineries exist in Canada.

Most refineries in Canada are up to 50 years old, but they have been extensively updated, refurbished, expanded and modernized with new technology. No two of them are alike, but there are essentially two kinds of refineries, says Gilles Morel, Director of Fuels with the Canadian Fuels Association.

First, the basics: The distillation refinery

The less complex, basic refinery is a distillation refinery, which distills crude oil and separates it into different components such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“You can add complexity by adding a lube plant – where you make the motor oil, lubricants and some specialty products, vacuum distillation units and chemical extraction to name a few” said Morel. “Some refineries also add asphalt plants, where asphalt demand justifies it.”

Adding complexity: High conversion refineries

“More complex refineries deal with a variety of crudes, from light crude to heavy and sour crude. They need much more complex conversion, such as hydrocrackers*, or cokers, that will convert the heavy portion left over from distillation into more valuable products like gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“Those are called high conversion refineries. There are some in Western Canada, there are some in Eastern Canada.”

Refineries vary by product – and province

The lightest products coming from the refining process are propane and butane, and the heaviest products that have high energy content are used in industrial applications for heat and power generation or as marine fuel oil, mainly for shipping on the east and west coasts.

In addition, some refineries will add capacity to produce chemical feedstock. This is the case in the Sarnia area of Ontario, where there is a large chemical manufacturing industry present.

In the west, refineries have access to Canadian crude and, with the changing quality of the crude, the refineries have evolved and adapted to be able to process heavier crudes, such as bitumen.

The market has also evolved over time, said Morel. “When you look at Alberta for example, the prosperity and growing population over the last 30 years has brought more demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. To meet the supply challenge of this increased demand, the refineries employ more complex processes to optimize every barrel that is refined.”

The refineries of the future

How will refineries of the future be different? Morel says that’s a difficult question to answer, because refineries are constantly changing and improving their operations.

“The reality is that we’re not dealing with a black and white industry. We’re dealing with something that constantly evolves. Some refineries are 50 years old, but they look very different than they did then.


“You have to adapt the refineries to meet the demand of the consumers, and to accommodate new regulations, such as removing sulphur from gasoline and diesel. We’re just now in the process of reducing sulphur further, to less than 10 parts per million, starting in 2017.

“We constantly improve the facilities. In the past, we used to operate with a lot of mechanical devices. Now this is largely operated through computers and electronics.”

Furthermore, refineries today have much lower emissions, are much safer, more reliable and require less manpower. It’s all about technology and innovation, said Morel.

“It looks like you are landing a spacecraft on the moon when you are at the controls of a refinery.” he said.

“As science and technology evolve, new innovations quickly make their way into refining. The refineries of tomorrow will be even more sophisticated.”


One of the “refineries of tomorrow” is the Sturgeon plant, the first new refinery built in Canada in 35 years.

“It is not a full product refinery,” explained Morel. “It will produce diesel and diluent, a product used to carry bitumen from oil sands production sites to markets, including the Sturgeon refinery.

“This is really a new concept.”

Learn more about the Sturgeon Refinery, built by the Northwest Redwater Partnership, in an upcoming blog.

We covered a number of refinery related terms in this post – not sure what some of them mean? Check out The ABCs of common and not so common refining terms.
 
*Hydrocracking is a method of breaking the molecules of petroleum into simpler molecules, such as gasoline or kerosene, by adding hydrogen under high pressure to the process.
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