The refining process: Distillation

Every refinery begins with the separation of crude oil into different fractions by distillation. The fractions are further treated to convert them into mixtures of more useful saleable products by various methods such as cracking, reforming, alkylation, polymerisation and isomerisation. These mixtures of new compounds are then separated using methods such as fractionation and solvent extraction. Impurities are removed by various methods, e.g. dehydration, desalting, sulphur removal and hydrotreating.

Refinery processes have developed in response to changing market demands for certain products. With the advent of the internal combustion engine the main task of refineries became the production of petrol. The quantities of petrol available from distillation alone was insufficient to satisfy consumer demand. Refineries began to look for ways to produce more and better quality petrol. Two types of processes have been developed: Breaking down large (heavy hydrocarbon molecules) and Reshaping or rebuilding hydrocarbon molecules.

Because crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbons with different boiling temperatures, it can be separated by distillation into groups of hydrocarbons that boil between two specified boiling points. Two types of distillation are performed: atmospheric and vacuum. Atmospheric distillation takes place in a distilling column at or near atmospheric pressure. The crude oil is heated to 350 – 400oC and the vapour and liquid are piped into the distilling column. The liquid falls to the bottom and the vapour rises, passing through a series of perforated trays (sieve trays). Heavier hydrocarbons condense more quickly and settle on lower trays and lighter hydrocarbons remain as a vapour longer and condense on higher trays. Liquid fractions are drawn from the trays and removed. In this way the light gases, methane, ethane, propane and butane pass out the top of the column, petrol is formed in the top trays, kerosene and gas oils in the middle, and fuel oils at the bottom. Residue drawn of the bottom may be burned as fuel, processed into lubricating oils, waxes and bitumen or used as feedstock for cracking units.

To recover additional heavy distillates from this residue, it may be piped to a second distillation column where the process is repeated under vacuum, called vacuum distillation. This allows heavy hydrocarbons with boiling points of 450oC and higher to be separated without them partly cracking into unwanted products such as coke and gas. The heavy distillates recovered by vacuum distillation can be converted into lubricating oils by a variety of processes. The most common of these is called solvent extraction. In one version of this process the heavy distillate is washed with a liquid which does not dissolve in it but which dissolves (and so extracts) the non-lubricating oil components out of it. Another version uses a liquid which does not dissolve in it but which causes the non-lubricating oil components to precipitate (as an extract) from it. Other processes exist which remove impurities by adsorption onto a highly porous solid or which remove any waxes that may be present by causing them to crystallise and precipitate out.


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