Alkylation Process Overview | Delayed Coking Process Overview

Alkylation Process Overview –Alkylation is the transfer of an alkyl group from one molecule to another. The alkyl group may be transferred as an alkyl carbocation, a free radical, a carbanion or a carbene (or their equivalents). Alkylating agents are widely used in chemistry because the alkyl group is probably the most common group encountered in organic molecules. Alkylation with only one carbon is termed methylation. In oil refining contexts, alkylation refers to a particular alkylation of iso-butane with olefins. It is a major aspect of the upgrading of petroleum.

Alkylation Process Overview | Delayed Coking Process Overview

In a standard oil refinery process, iso-butane is alkylated with low-molecular-weight alkenes (primarily a mixture of propene and butene) in the presence of a strong acid catalyst, either sulfuric acid or hydrofluoric acid. In an oil refinery it is referred to as a sulfuric acid alkylation unit (SAAU) or a hydrofluoric alkylation unit, (HFAU). Refinery workers may simply refer to it as the alky or alky unit. The catalyst protonates the alkenes (propene and butene) to produce reactive carbocations which alkylate the iso-butane. The reaction is carried out at mild temperatures (32 and 86 F) in a two-phase reaction.

Because the reaction is exothermic, cooling is needed: SAAU plants require lower temperatures so the cooling medium needs to be chilled, for HFAU normal refinery cooling water will suffice. It is important to keep a high ratio of iso-butane to alkene at the point of reaction to prevent side reactions which produces a lower octane product, so the plants have a high recycle of iso-butane back to feed. The phases separate spontaneously, so the acid phase is vigorously mixed with the hydrocarbon phase to create sufficient contact surface.

The product is called alkylate and is composed of a mixture of high-octane, branched-chain paraffinic hydrocarbons (highly branched tri-methyl-pentanes and iso-heptane and isooctane). Alkylate is a premium gasoline blending stock because it has exceptional antiknock properties and is clean burning. The octane number of the alkylate depends mainly upon the kind of alkenes used and upon operating conditions. For example, isooctane results from combining butylene with iso-butane and has an octane rating of 100 by definition. There are other products in alkylate, so the octane rating will vary accordingly.

Since crude oil generally contains only 10 to 40 percent of hydrocarbon constituents in the gasoline range, refineries use a fluid catalytic cracking process to convert high molecular weight hydrocarbons into smaller and more volatile compounds, which are then converted into liquid gasoline-size hydrocarbons. Alkylation processes transform low molecular-weight alkenes and iso-paraffin molecules into larger iso-paraffins with a high octane number.

Combining cracking, polymerization, and alkylation can result in a gasoline yield representing 70 percent of the starting crude oil. More advanced processes, such as cyclicization of paraffins and dehydrogenation of naphthenes forming aromatic hydrocarbons in a catalytic reformer, have also been developed to increase the octane rating of gasoline. Modern refinery operation can be shifted to produce almost any fuel type with specified performance criteria from a single crude feedstock.

In the entire range of refinery processes, alkylation is a very important process that enhances the yield of high-octane gasoline. However, not all refineries have an alkylation plant. The oil and gas journal annual survey of worldwide refining capacities for January 2007 lists many countries with no alkylation plants at their refineries.
Refineries examine whether it makes sense economically to install alkylation units. Alkylation units are complex, with substantial economy of scale. In addition to a suitable quantity of feedstock, the price spread between the value of alkylate product and alternate feedstock disposition value must be large enough to justify the installation.

Alternative outlets for refinery alkylation feedstocks include sales as LPG, blending of C4 streams directly into gasoline and feedstocks for chemical plants. Local market conditions vary widely between plants. Variation in the RVP specification for gasoline between countries and between seasons dramatically impacts the amount of butane streams that can be blended directly into gasoline. The transportation of specific types of LPG streams can be expensive so local disparities in economic conditions are often not fully mitigated by cross market movements of alkylation feedstocks.

The availability of a suitable catalyst is also an important factor in deciding whether to build an alkylation plant. If sulfuric acid is used, significant volumes are needed. Access to a suitable plant is required for the supply of fresh acid and the disposition of spent acid. If a sulfuric acid plant must be constructed specifically to support an alkylation unit, such construction will have a significant impact on both the initial requirements for capital and ongoing costs of operation. Alternatively, it is possible to install a process unit to regenerate the spent acid.

No drying of the gas takes place. This means that there will be no loss of acid, no acidic waste material and no heat is lost in process gas reheating. The selective condensation in the condenser ensures that the regenerated fresh acid will be 98% w/w even with the humid process gas. It is possible to combine spent acid regeneration with disposal of hydrogen sulfide by using the hydrogen sulfide as a fuel.

The second main catalyst option is hydrofluoric acid. Rates of consumption for HF acid in alkylation plants are much lower than for sulfuric acid. HF acid plants can process a wider range of feedstock mix with propylene and butylene. HF plants also produce alkylate with better octane rating than sulfuric plants. However, due to the hazardous nature of the material, HF acid is produced at very few locations and transportation must be managed rigorously.

Alkylation Process Overview | Delayed Coking Process Overview

Alkylation Process Overview | Delayed Coking Process Overview

In alkylation plants the targeting step includes drawing a boundary around the facility.
Heat in and out, directly, and/or indirectly through steam consumption and/or generation,
water production and/or generation, power consumption and/or generation are among the
plant’s boundary are all identified.

Again heat integration between feed and product is common in such facilities; integration
between reaction and separation section and between distillation columns pumparounds and
the feed steams are highly recommended to achieve lower energy consummation targets.
Complete pinch technology application for such plants will be included in later versions of
this manual.


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