Automating the Refining Business for a Greener Future
- R K Ghosh, Former Director (Refi neries), IOCL and President, RIL

The refining industry has seen a number of advancements in the automation technologies in recent few years. In fact, process automation/ instrumentation, control and monitoring technologies are getting smarter every year. But are they actually improving the business? Are they helping in addressing the impending workforce crisis the industry is facing? Are they helping providing the fl exibility to change the production strategies to deal with varying crude slates? In the backdrop of ‘IAC and Refi nery World Conference 2015’, R K Ghosh, Former Director (Refi neries), IOCL and President, RIL, addresses all these queries and elucidates on the factors that will decide the future of refi ning. Excerpt

Looking at the theme of the conference – Smart Refining & Automation for Green Future – two important things come to mind. One is ‘Smart Refining’ and the question arises whether are we doing smart refining today and if not, then how will we do it in the future. The other one is how to automate the refining business to get a greener future. As a refining man, I would say that it is a very daunting task to be greener while doing business with particular object in mind.

If we look back 30-40 years, refining units only had the analog instruments like - pressure gauges, temperature gauges, strip charts, etc, for getting the information or data to run the units. Being a Chemical Engineer, I was very skeptical about the data that we got from the instruments. For example, if there was a missing ink in the strip charts, it was difficult to know what is happening inside the unit or what the history was. It was a general practice of matter at that time that if there is a problem affecting the plant performance - the blame went to instrumentation. Also there was no catalytic system in refining units and all the process units were physical separation processes.

But things have changed dramatically in last few years and now refineries have advanced in leaps and bounds. Today’s refinery has almost 35-40 units and catalytic systems are the heart of any refinery. Previously, refiners were looking for commodity products, produced commodity products, but today’s refineries are looking at molecular management, producing molecules as in petrochemicals unit. I would say that today’s petrochemicals are a step ahead of refining when it comes to instrumentation, control and automation because of the type of portfolio of products, the types of units they control and the type of emergencies they have to control. The amount of emergency shut-downs in petrochemical units encountered daily is mind-boggling.

Management of refining and petrochemical looking at maximising the EBITDAs, improving refinery GRMs, and also they want to know the Solomon Benchmarking position. While the middle management is interested in throughputs, actual vs planned cost, and energy cost - the teams at operations level are interested in temperature, pressure, catalyst flow and other parameters. Today, the challenge is to interpret the real time data for improving the top and bottom line margins of refining and petrochemical.

In refining and petrochemical business, automation/instrumentation has four different levels – field instrumentation, distributed control system (DCS), total advanced process control, and refinery- wide optimisation then enterprise-wide optimisation. As of today, refineries are looking at molecular management. It is vital for the operator to know what is happening inside the component to observe temperature pressure, flow level measurement, etc.

Future Refineries
There are many distinct things that determine the future of refining. One is safety and reliability – how to operate plant/ system/facility safely with reliability, without interruption at the same time accord with international standard. Other important aspects are integration of fire and gas system, integration of the public address system in case of emergencies, the alarm management system. But beyond that the important factor is to prevent any abnormal situation from occurring inside the unit.

Operator efficiency and effectiveness is another aspect. Advances in automation may be enabling the smart refiners to achieve efficiency and improve the overall performance of the plant, but getting efficient operators may be a major future hurdle as the whole industry is facing the depletion of talent right now. More than 45 per cent of people, who are working in the industry, are over the age of 57. So in future, there will be a lot of talent attrition within the industry. So it is imperative to focus on the talent management aspect. Also, it is important to empower the operators by giving them the right gadgets and equipments.

Technology and innovation also play an important role; a lot of innovation is taking place these days, mainly wireless technology which is seeing advancements in a big way now.

In the same vein, asset management also moulds the future of refining. Refiners are under constant pressure to operate continuously to improve productivity, so asset management is another area that the industry should consider on a serious level. The operator should know how to mange the assets efficiently, and evaluate its performance and productivity. Being in an industry as intensive as ours, if a failure takes place, we lose crores of rupees every day and to improve bottom lines and gain a competitive advantage, it is very important to practice integration asset management.

Last but not the least determinant is process control and optimisation, and I personally believe that the future of refining does not just depend on optimisation through EPC, but on realtime optimisation. Real-time optimisation has to be not only for any particular process unit or system, it has to be for the entire refinery/enterprise. For real-time optimisation, the industry needs to think beyond automation, beyond instrumentation. For automation, we need to integrate Information Technology (IT) as well as instrumentation to get the final result.