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Burn less, refine more: Plastic not fuel

Burn less, refine more – an oft-heard refrain from OMV these days. Among other things, it means producing more feedstock for petrochemicals. For example, for long-life plastics that bind CO2 emissions far longer than gasoline or diesel. And how does that work? Well, with a diva from the sixties – and a young process engineer from the Schwechat Refinery who knows what’s needed to get the best out of her.

Spring 2018. Anna-Maria Schober is sitting with her colleagues in the central control room of the Schwechat Refinery. After months of painstaking preparation, analyzing risks, and weeks of testing at a pilot plant, the time has finally come: the controller is switched on, the test run begins. The goal? Keeping the yield of propylene – a key feedstock for the petrochemicals sector – from the FCC unit at a constant level even with more difficult starting material. Heavier crude oil components, that is with less valuable residue, should be broken down into a quality refinery product. But why all the excitement? Well, what sounds simple is actually highly complex. “FCC units are sensitive and have a complex energy balance. That means they must be handled with care – almost like a diva”, grins Anna-Maria. “However conscientiously and extensively you have calculated and tested in advance – when the time comes in the real world you still never know exactly if everything will go to plan”.

In the Schwechat Refinery we have one of the top FCCs in Europe and we get the maximum possible propylene for plastics production.
Anna-Maria Schober, Process Engineer, OMV Schwechat Refinery

The FCC – the heart of the refinery

FCC stands for Fluid Catalytic Cracking. Catalytic cracking is the most important material transformation process to occur in a refinery. Put simply, heavy oil is transformed into lighter products like propylene or gasoline. The good thing about this FCC unit is that is relatively flexible. If you pay it enough attention and put in enough work – like Anna-Maria Schober and her colleagues – it can also be optimized so that you get more of the desired product. In the case of the Schwechat Refinery, this means petrochemical substances like propylene.

Demand for petrochemical feedstock is growing. In Europe we anticipate demand to climb from its current 54 million tonnes to 65 million tonnes in 2040.
Mirela Glaser, Head of Strategic Pricing Fuels & Petrochemical Sales, OMV Downstream

Market in flux

Source: OMV Forecast

This is important as the market is in a state of flux. “We see that demand for petrochemical feedstock is growing”, says Mirela Glaser, who deals with market developments in OMV’s sales markets. “In Europe we anticipate demand to climb from its current 54 million tonnes to 65 million tonnes in 2040”. In contrast, the share of gasoline and diesel fuels will decrease long term. 

Demand for gasoline and diesel has actually been relatively constant in recent years and has even increased for diesel.

Source: Wood Mackenzie

That said, a significant decline is expected for Europe in the next 20 years, according to Mirela Glaser: From 525 million tonnes (including biofuel) to 430 million tonnes in 2040. One of the drivers here is the ever growing awareness among consumers of their responsibility in regard to climate change, especially since the Paris Agreement: Alternative drive forms like hydrogen or electromobility, biofuel or natural gas are increasingly pushing gasoline and diesel off their perch.

Here Mirela explains the other trends behind these developments:
Audio: Trends in the refinery sales markets (M4A, 792,8 KB)

Refine more, burn less

Against this backdrop, OMV will refine more and burn less, thereby laying the groundwork for a lower-carbon future. This means that less gasoline or diesel will be produced from crude and that it will increasingly be used for feedstock for plastics production. The plastics that result can be found in solar panels, electric vehicles, water and sewage pipes, smartphones, computer casing or internet cables – and the CO2 is bound there long term. OMV’s acquisition of a majority stake in plastics producer Borealis was a key step in this direction.

Propylene pioneers in the refinery

Another decisive advantage lies in the fact that OMV started to optimize its refineries in the direction of petrochemicals long ago. Like with the FCC unit in Schwechat. “Already in the 2000s, we began preparing the construction to facilitate higher propylene yields; we did a lot of testing and we are a motivated team with a great deal of experience”, says Anna-Maria.

While part of the FCC unit consists of the basic framework erected in 1962, the first adjustments to facilitate petrochemicals were made more than 20 years ago. But let’s jump back to 2018 and the efforts dedicated to optimizing the facility.

Anna-Maria Schober explains:
Audio: Optimization of the FCC unit (M4A, 687,9 KB)

That the pioneering spirit and effort of Anna-Maria and her colleagues is paying off can be seen in the figures: The share of ethylene, propylene and butadiene has risen constantly in the past two decades. Today petrochemicals account for more than ten percent of the Schwechat FCC unit's production. That is one of the highest rates in Europe. And that isn’t just a source of pride for Anna-Maria and the FCC team – it’s also an important step towards a lower-carbon future.

Foto Credit: Martin Reifensteiner | @staublawine
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