Billions of people using petroleum products hardly know how they are made available to their applications. All they know is that these products come from crude oil.
But the refining process is long and crude oil distillation into “cuts” is only the first step. In the early days, only the kerosene cut was used directly for lighting and heating. As the industry advanced, there arose a need to improve the products by removing sulphur and other contaminants in elaborate process units which required reaction with hydrogen.
The hydrogen was made available by reforming some of the naphtha before being blended into gasoline. The need to produce more light products than what the original crude contains made the industry resort to converting the heavy residue of crude oil by using catalysts in high temperature and pressure processes. Thus the volume of fuel oil is reduced and that of gasoline and diesel increased accordingly.
The lubricating oils are obtained from distilling the heavy residue under vacuum, and in a few further steps removing the undesirable portions and wax and polishing by hydrogen to remove sulphur and other impurities to finally produce base lubricating oils.
But the story is not finished here and refiners need to adjust products either for quality specification or for providing safe conditions for long storage, environment, equipment and engine’s protection.
For these purposes, refiners rely on additives which are defined by the Committee of Petroleum Additives Manufacturers in Europe (ATC) as “a chemical substance or preparation, added to fuel, in concentrations typically of less than 1 per cent, to impart or enhance desirable properties or to suppress undesirable properties”.
In the early days, there was no need for additives as the use of products was strictly for lighting and heating. However, the proliferation of cars and vehicles changed all that.
Gasoline-fuelled cars needed higher and higher octane number, and refiners relied on tetraethyl lead (TEL) — as of 1923 — to boost octane which enabled engine designers to make more efficient engines. This continued to be used in increasing quantities up to the 1970s, when countries in Europe and North America started phasing out the product due to its toxic and health effects. The use of TEL is now limited to just few countries and it is on its way out completely.
In the 1930s, gasoline from cracking units became available which has good octane, but has the tendency to oxidise and form gums. Therefore, antioxidants began to be used increasingly to suppress this tendency. To prevent deposit formation in engines parts and fuel systems, deposit control additives are increasingly used.
The increasing use of diesel fuel necessitated the use of ignition improvers to assist cold starting. The increasing use of diesel fuel also called for “cold flow improvers” to prevent wax crystals from precipitating and blocking the fuel system. Since the 1980s, diesel fuel additives packages became available to do a number of functions, including cetane number and lubricity improvement and autoxidation.
Jet fuel additives include anti-icing, anti-static and lubricity improver. Even fuel oil can have additives to improve its combustion and control ash formation and prevent corrosion of equipment.
Fuel additives are often developed in cooperation between manufacturers’ research centres, equipment manufacturers and refiners. These additives are mandated by many specifications for their benefits to fuel economy, environmental protection, reduction of exhaust emissions and longevity of equipment and reduced maintenance. They also improve performance and aid refiners in reducing processing requirement.
To give readers an idea of this function the ATC tell us that “the petroleum additives industry is a significant operating sector of the world economy, with a worldwide turnover of €7 billion (Dh27.5 billion) and research and development (R&D) spending in 2005 of €400 million. The industry has 8,400 employees worldwide (2,800 in Europe), maintaining some 75 R&D and manufacturing sites globally (25 in Europe).”
I am not aware if any of these additives is manufactured in our region. However, given the level of crude oil production, refining capacity, the evolution of the petrochemical industry and the rise in petroleum product exports and consumption, it is worthwhile considering production facilities for such additives starting from the largest volume and most common.
Cooperation with some well-known and qualified companies may be a good starting point to be able to transfer the technology in an orderly fashion and to enable the region to establish its R&D centres further down the line.
In the 1970s there was an attempt by the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation (APICORP) to establish additives production in the Arab countries. But the attempt was stalled for lack of interest at the time.
But things have changed and let us hope that a positive move is possible this time around.