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Adding hydrogen to heavy oil is a viable alternative to make it more fluid

In the obligatory and satisfactory task of achieving technological independence in the world of hydrocarbons, some PDVSA workers insistently handle the thesis of making the crude oil extracted from the Orinoco Belt more fluid, by replacing the current improvement system, based in the extraction of carbon and mixing of crude oil, by methods aligned with the addition of hydrogen.

A necessary definition: oil is a hydrocarbon that, as its name indicates, is composed of carbon and hydrogen and, to a lesser extent, comes from the subsoil “contaminated” by other chemical elements, such as sulfur, nitrogen, metals, salts, among others. others.

How heavy or light an oil is is linked to the hydrogen-carbon ratio. When the proportion of carbon to hydrogen in this ratio is greater, the hydrocarbon is more viscous; and vice versa, as the molecular chains are more hydrogenated, the hydrocarbon is less viscous and therefore easier to move, which increases its value.

Hence, the methods aligned with the addition of hydrogen to heavy and extra-heavy oil seek to obtain crude oil of greater commercial value and thus strengthen the profitability of the nation state.

To continue reading, another concept is relevant. One of the most used indicators to measure the quality of oil is the density expressed in degrees API (American Petroleum Institute), which allows crude oil to be classified as extra heavy (less than 10° API), heavy (greater than 10° API and less than 22° API), medium (between 22° and 31° API) and light (greater than 31° API up to 45° API). Hydrocarbons greater than 45°API are considered condensates.

Another concept: dilution, which is carried out to make the crude oil more fluid and is executed when heavy or extra-heavy crude oil is combined with another less dense product, obtained from the distillation of petroleum, such as naphtha. Mixing is also another concept that must be known and differentiated from dilution; It is made when a light crude oil is mixed with a heavy or extra heavy crude oil, in order to create a less dense and more fluid cocktail, in this case the Merey 16.

The dominant oil in the Belt is less than 10 degrees API, very viscous and resistant to movement, which makes it difficult to transport through pipelines, making it difficult to handle on ships; This is why heavy and extra-heavy crude oils have very little commercial value.

Hence, for Venezuela, the search for any idea that makes the almost immovable oil of the Orinoco Belt more fluid is a historically inevitable task, since it depends on it that the treatment of this crude oil is more environmentally friendly and can be transferred by pipelines to ports and refineries.

To make heavy oils more friendly, PDVSA treats them in the Jose upgraders, located in Puerto La Cruz, whose final product is the so-called synthetic barrel, created to be originally an integral part of the diets of US refineries such as Valero Energy Corp. , Chevron Corp, Phillips 66 and PBF Energy Inc.

In Venezuela there are four upgraders from the joint companies Petrocedeño, Petropiar, Petromonagas and Petro Roraima, with a processing capacity of 610 thousand barrels per day (MBD) of heavy and extra-heavy crude oil, converting them into 543 MBD of improved or synthetic products with densities between 16 ° and 32° API.

The synthetics produced by breeders were designed for the specialized diet of the United States; Today, due to illegal coercive measures, a good part of these synthetics are exported to other countries and are used to feed the Amuay and Cardón refineries.

In the processing of heavy and extra-heavy crude oils in Jose's upgraders, a physical-chemical method called delayed coking is used, capable of substantially reducing the presence of carbon in the unsaturated chain of the crude oil. In this process, coke is generated, whose black mass is notably visible in front of the improvers, on the road section from Píritu to Barcelona. Likewise, the improvement system reduces the sulfur content to a concentration between 2% and 3%. Both byproducts are toxic to the environment.

The corrosion generated by acidic crude oils (high in sulfur) from the Belt more frequently deteriorates the facilities of refineries and upgraders. Rehabilitating this infrastructure requires significant reinvestment, which negatively impacts PDVSA's operating profit.

Furthermore, if extra-heavy fuel is used as fuel, the sulfur in its composition combines in the atmosphere with hydrogen and humidity to form hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid, which are very toxic, corrosive and generate the so-called acid rain. In addition, crude oil has heavy metals that force refineries to carry out extraction processes to avoid contamination of the refined products.

The current processes for the use of heavy and extra-heavy crude oil from the Belt are two. The first, improvement by carbon extraction, whose commercial product is a synthetic, previously used by refineries in the US; the second, a mixture of crude oils to produce the blend known as Merey 16, which was used by Citgo as its main diet to produce fuels and lubricants.

To transport them, heavy and extra-heavy oils are diluted with gasoline. Mesa 30 is used in the mixing process, this being a light cocktail produced in Monagas, of great commercial value. From such a mixture, the Merey 16 blend emerges as a commercial product, which is composed of 60% extra-heavy crude oil and 40% Mesa 30.

The gasoline required for Jose's improvement came from the United States, naturally, which favored these companies and further strengthened their profitability system at the expense of dependence on the Venezuelan State with the significant reduction in their income. Today PDVSA produces it, but in small quantities. The rest matters.

This is so, because the technology used in the industry to improve the quality of heavy and extra-heavy oil is or is within the scope of the US authorities, and, therefore, is subject to the coercive and illegal measures imposed by the Government of that country. country. They prohibit PDVSA's freedom, damn it! to deal with the owners of technological patents and suppliers of equipment and spare parts to the improvers.

Hence, Edmundo Salazar, a retired industry worker, points out that the sanctions are the main reason why the four upgraders located in Jose are used predominantly as mixers of extra-heavy oil with light oil and/or gasoline.

He explains that the delayed coking technology, installed in the Petro San Félix upgrader, owned by the American Conoco Phillips, cannot be used for two main reasons: one, we have litigation with Conoco Phillips and it will not renew the technology license and two Even if this company gave permission, it could not be used because the US would not only prohibit its use in Venezuela, but the company would be subject to sanctions. Delayed coking technology is the heart of improvement.

Faced with this reality, the workers have put in their inventiveness so that Petrocedeño reaches a minimum processing of 170.000 barrels of diluted oil per day, coming from the Belt. Petropiar, 160.000, to generate 60.000 barrels between 20 and 22 degrees API. Petromonagas will upgrade 45.000 barrels, while Petro Roraima is beginning to reestablish operations.

But other workers maintain the thesis of adopting a technological development that points towards improvement by adding hydrogen, on which research has been done for more than 18 years. They propose developing reactors capable of modifying unsaturated molecules by adding hydrogen to them.

The hydrogen would be obtained from a donor hydrocarbon that could be the gas. The addition would be made with reactors in the production fields. In this way, the API density of crude oil from the Belt would be raised without sacrificing light crude oil or promoting a loss of coke production. Production would surpass light crude oil as a critical route in the development and growth of production in the Belt, where the largest reserves of heavy and extra-heavy crude oil on the planet are located.

One of the many advantages of the technological approach of adding hydrogen is environmental. Of every 100 barrels of extra-heavy crude oil, between 10 and 18 are transformed into coke.

Another economic advantage is not using light crude oil which can be used as diet for the Puerto La Cruz refinery and for export, since it is highly profitable.

Oil production will be strengthened. Less gasoline would be used as a diluent in transportation to the upgraders.

The workers say that, doing a theoretical exercise, eliminating the use of Mesa 30 in the production of Merey 16, which reaches up to 40%, and instead producing by addition a crude oil similar to Merey 16, the industry would be generating at least 30 dollars per barrel of this commercial product, considering that a barrel of 30° API crude costs today (May 2024) 80 dollars per barrel.

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