Refineries of the future

Online Editor

Amit Kar on digitising our tomorrow

Our global economy needs to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels at an accelerating rate. However, considering the critical role they play in energy and production, this transition cannot take place overnight.

Industries still depend on resources such as petroleum and its refined products, and refineries are still needed to keep the economic wheels turning. As well as focusing on net-zero carbon emissions, we must also consider approaches that make refineries safer, more efficient, sustainable and profitable while we navigate the energy transition.

Obstacles facing refineries of the future

Refineries face numerous challenges including: the drive to make plants more sustainable through decarbonisation, processing of bio feedstocks and process electrification; the brownfield share of refining capacity will increase as investment in new capacity is taken out due to global decarbonisation; and nations and owner/operators increasingly look to integrated refining and petrochemical facilities to extract and preserve more value for themselves.

Digitalisation is the essential tool in meeting these challenges; unleashing the power of data to enable insight, identify value opportunities – and to be more profitable while doing so. But the range of innovations that now fall under the theme of digitalisation can be bewildering. For digitally enabled refineries of the future, the imperative tools and solutions include those discussed further below.

The incorporation of IT and OT

An underlying enabler of industrial digitalisation, the incorporation of IT and OT has been playing out slowly for decades. But it is now gathering massive momentum and delivering a vast array of new possibilities.

Delivering real time or historised operational data (via systems such as Aveva Pi) into the business domain to support more effective decisions is one of these possibilities. This is particularly useful in situations where multiple OT vendors might be involved, for example when a new petrochemical plant is integrated with an existing refinery.

Integration of power and process

The techno-commercial and environmental performance of any plant is most impacted by how its key processes perform, and how this makes demands of the associated power systems. Until recently, efforts to optimise either one of these things was done in isolation.

Digitalisation is removing these siloes, allowing meaningful optimization in context and across multiple parameters. In the asset design phase, Aveva Process Simulation can be used in conjunction with Schneider Electric’s ETAP to ensure that power systems design – including its C02 footprint – is optimised. During operations, ETAP and Aveva Process Simulation bring together the electrical and process elements of a true behavioural digital twin – fed with data from Pi and other sources – to enable near real-time optimisation across a range of interconnected KPIs.

The evolution of the digital twin

The two innovations mentioned above (integrations of IT and OT and power and process) also feed directly into the evolution of the digital twin – now an essential industrial tool. Once a static, predominantly 3D and engineering-focused set of digital asset information, the digital twin is now becoming a true behavioural representation of industrial plants and sits at the centre of most digital use cases and capabilities, including the examples below.

The refining workforce of the future needs a digital environment in which to build up the new, higher-value competencies required to operate the refinery of the future safely and profitably; this is the digital twin. The big crew change makes it increasingly difficult to deploy experience and expertise to the plant floor; the digital twin is the medium through which connected workers – often thousands of miles apart – can collaborate to tap into a world of knowledge. Finally, the digital twin is a necessary pillar of any attempt to optimise the overall business performance of any industrial asset. It provides the true technical or performance insight to underpin commercial decisions such as value chain optimisation -- for example the crude purchasing and downstream product mix decisions a refinery operator must continually make.

Intermediary solutions such as digitising our refineries will play a significant role in giving the world more time to adapt its sources of energy. Some of these adaptations could be here to stay even after achieving our long-term sustainability goals post the energy crisis. Digitalisation is, after all, a critical enabler for the energy transition as a whole, not just for the refineries of the future.

Amit Kar is with Schneider Electric

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