Will Pale Oil Replace Heavy Group I?

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LISBON, Portugal-With API Group I base oil producers in Europe facing tumultuous times, one presenter told UEILs 2012 Congress that heavy naphthenic mineral oils present a viable alternative to heavy Group I paraffinics.

The refinery system is in an upheaval, Edward Casserly, director of research and development at Jackson, Miss.-based Ergon, Inc., said in an interview following his presentation. Weve been through it in the United States, and its coming to Europe. There are a lot of Group I plants in Europe, and they all wont survive.

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Heavy paraffinic Group I base oils face numerous challenges, including the effects of mandatory clean emissions regulations, the cost of crude oil, the economics of refining and the production advantages of Group II and III base oils. By 2015 Group I oils will represent just about half of the base oil pool, and by 2020 will account for as little as 40 percent of the global base oil capacity.

Casserly noted a trend mentioned by other Congress speakers: that major oil companies are realigning their business activity, choosing to concentrate on big volume business and retract from niche markets such as lubricants.

A significant driver in moving away from Group I base oils comes from the automotive industry, which has shifted from monograde motor oils made from Group I base oils to multigrade motor oils made from Group II and III base oils.Newer automobiles with high performance engines require the properties offered by Groups II and III base oils.

Casserly said that naphthenic oils provide a viable alternative to Group I paraffinics because they are available in a wide range of viscosities (3 to 4000 cSt at 40C), can be used in many different applications and help manufacture high quality products that comply with a variety of multi-national regulations. They also have a higher solvency power than paraffinics (while having low polyaromatic compounds content and low toxicity), good low temperature properties and good heat transfer capacity.

Additives dissolve more easily in naphthenic base oils, which is beneficial in formulating metalworking fluids. In manufacturing grease, higher yields are possible because less soap is required. Naphthenic base oil also provides better low-temperature performance than many paraffinic oils, which makes them ideal for formulating industrial fluids.

Casserly noted that base oil manufacturing is the core business of naphthenic refineries and that they are not subject to the same vacuum gas oil economics of fuels vs. lubes that the Group I refineries face, which is a main reason major oil companies need to rationalize these production facilities. Ergons Vicksburg, Miss., facility is by far the worlds largest pale oil refinery with a capacity of 22,000 barrels of naphthenic base oil per day. It is the seventh largest base oil refinery in the world, and the third largest in the United States.

Currently, there are about 160 base oil plants in the world, and only about 20 percent of petroleum refineries produce base oils, he said, adding that only 1 percent of crude oil is converted into base oils. Only 5 percent of crude oil is naphthenic, which is processed at 16 refineries worldwide. Casserly noted that some of the naphthenic refineries produce a full product slate, from light mineral oil to bright stocks.

Naphthenic base oils and process oils produced at Vicksburg are used by Ergons global customers in electrical transformer oils, compound blending operations, rubber products, chemical processing, printing inks, metalworking fluids, refrigeration oils, paints and greases.

Many of todays naphthenic refineries use more modern technology than their Group I competitors to produce clean products, Casserly asserted.

He said that two technologies are used to produce naphthenic base oils, hydroprocessing and solvent extraction. Group I base oil plants use the older and more costly process of solvent refining and dewaxing to remove impurities from the crude oil in order to get base stock.

Hydroprocessing, he said, allows naphthenic plants to produce base oils at lower cost and take advantage of economy of scale. The beauty of hydroprocessing is that you dont need to handle solvents, he said. What weve done at Ergon is turn to hydroprocessing. Weve taken the advances made in the refining of paraffinics and used them on the naphthenic side.

He said that by hydrotreating naphthenic crude, unwanted aromatic compounds are converted into stable, useful compounds or broken into smaller compounds that can then be manufactured into other products. The simpler process and higher capacity results in higher base oil yields. It provides the highest quality product for the lowest cost, Casserly added.

With everyone going toward cleaner products, and with all the regulatory requirements, you need hydroprocessing to get the purity and stability and meet viscometric requirements, he said.

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