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Worldwide Refinery Processing Review (Quarterly Issues)

Publication date:4Q 2010
Item#: B21004

The fluid catalytic cracking unit (FCCU) is a main refinery conversion process responsible for producing a large amount of the refinery gasoline pool along with diesel, light olefins, and LPG.

Having been introduced in the 1940s the FCCU is also one of the most mature technologies in the refinery. Recent global economic concerns and market conditions (shift from gasoline to diesel, strict environmental regulations, lower refinery utilization rates, processing of more heavy crudes) have caused a number of analysts to declare that the FCC is an "obsolete" process. While the FCC may need to alter its operating strategy it is hardly obsolete.

Table of Contents:

Continued FCC technology developments have focused on widening the boiling range of the feed that can be processed on the unit, maximizing diesel and light olefins yields, and providing operational flexibility to allow the unit to take advantage of favorable market opportunities to maximize unit profitability. Integration of refineries with petrochemical complexes is another option being explored to maximize refinery margins. Future FCC R&D work should focus on resid conversion, next-generation technologies including higher conversion catalysts and biomass processing, distillate and propylene maximization technologies, and FCC emissions control to ensure the FCC remains a viable conversion technology for years to come. Additionally in the fluid catalytic cracking section, new products and topics covered include:


Visbreaking is a thermal conversion process introduced in 1939. The process converts atmospheric or vacuum residues to gas, naphtha, distillates, and visbroken residue to reduce the quantity of cutter stock required for fuel oils and increase overall distillate yield. Similarly, mild thermal cracking technologies can be applied to the same refinery streams (and in almost identical configurations) to achieve slightly higher conversion levels. When compared to coking, conversion levels for visbreaking and thermal cracking technologies—operating under milder conditions—are quite low, resulting in a significant portion (approximately 70-80%) of the product slate remaining as high-sulfur, residual fuels. As a result, coking and other residue conversion techniques (e.g., resid FCC, resid hydroprocessing) that yield little or no residual fuel oil products are being deployed at a rapid pace. However, these severe processes have the disadvantages of capital intensity, high utilities consumption, and catalyst demands. Visbreaking has been a technology of interest for many refiners throughout the world, but its competitive position is being diminished by increasingly stringent environmental regulations and market demand for lighter products.

Visbreaking and thermal cracking technology developments have focused primarily on optimization systems and operational improvements. The relative maturity of visbreaking processes has limited the number of novel processing schemes that have been presented in recent years. Even still, the use of catalysts and hydrogen to improve visbreaking processes has been considered by a number of companies. Furthermore, the integrated operation of visbreaking with other refinery units to enhance overall residue conversion has been covered, and may be especially attractive as refiners continue to process larger quantities of heavy feeds. Additionally in the fluid catalytic cracking section, new products and topics covered include:

  • An up-to-date look at residue conversion in refineries with a specific focus on the future market for visbreaking technologies and outlets for residual fuel oil products;
  • Updated information on commercial visbreaking technology offerings from Axens, Foster Wheeler/UOP, KBR, and Lummus Technology/Shell Global Solution;
  • Advances in the development and commercialization of PDVSA-Intevep's Aquaconversion technology;
  • A review of visbreaking optimization programs from Axens, Baker Hughes, GE Water & Process Technology, Instituto Colombiano del Petroleo, KBC, and Nalco Energy Services;
  • Operational strategies to identify, limit, control, and remove fouling/coking in visbreaking heaters;
  • Monitoring techniques for dealing with naphthenic acid corrosion problems in visbreaker fractionators;
  • Revamp opportunities to enhance refinery residue conversion with limited capital investment;
  • Energy efficiency and environmental considerations in visbreaking;
  • A review of the most recent patent applications and research work related to visbreaking processes, additive and optimization packages, integrated processing schemes, and more.
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