Process Engineering Imperative for the Oil & Gas Industry

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There is a common agreement among practitioners in the Oil and Gas (O&G) Industry for the imperative of process engineering. Process engineering is at the heart of O&G industry as it entails the conceptualization, design and development of processes for converting raw materials (i.e. crude oil, condensate, etc.) into final usable products (i.e. gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.).

As process engineering plays a critical role in the O&G industry, its practice should be guarded with utmost care and prudence. The practice of process engineering is laden with voluminous calculations all of which are geared towards optimization of results or value. This simply means that the design of O&G facilities should perform at optimal level to contribute to company’s bottom line. Further to this goal is taking into consideration at the design level the operating cost and maintenance cost of the operating facility.

Of paramount importance to value creation is the safety of the facility (in my opinion, an inherently safer facility). While plant safety is the primary responsibility of an allied field Process Safety Engineering, process engineers should also be conscious of the safeguards to put in the design. In view of safety, process engineers also have to collaborate with fire protection engineers as to the design of plant’s fire protection system. Many aspects of fire protection engineering apply the fundamentals of process engineering such as fire ring main sizing, jockey pump sizing, etc.

Process engineers in the O&G industry can work in the design of upstream or downstream facilities, in operations or in vendors supplying process equipment or instrumentation. Process engineers involved in the design of upstream and downstream facilities are usually employed by an Engineering & Construction company. When you say upstream facility, it means the facility for extraction of crude oil and associated by-products from reservoir which can be offshore (under the sea) or onshore (under the continental crust). By downstream facility we mean the refineries which process the crude oil into final products for the market. Process engineers here can have role in design, in project engineering or in commissioning. In these roles, various levels of process engineering competencies are required.

Petroleum refineries also hire process engineers. In this role, process engineers support the refining operations and many of them are involved in studies for facility expansion or revamp projects. Later during the project execution, they take the lead in process design in close collaboration with contractor. In this case, they have to ascertain the technical integrity or acceptability of the design based on their company’s operational requirements.

Process engineers are also employed by equipment and instrumentation vendors and they are involved in sales support role. They have to meet with the client and respond to their technical queries or clarifications. Sometimes, they are in a position to advice on which of their products are best for use in certain processes. They may also participate in Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) studies of process design.

In prospective, the challenges that lie ahead for process engineering are as follows:

  • Design for “smart” processes wherein there is zero or minimal level of human intervention. This has already been done for platforms and refineries employing advanced level of automation (e.g. normally unmanned installations). This trend is foreseen to continue in the coming decades and more improvements will come into the fore.
  • There will always be clamor for environmental protection and climate change abatement. The latest call comes from Pope Francis who recently released his encyclical “Laudato Si.” In this debate, carbon footprint reduction is primarily targeted on the O&G industry. As such, process engineering should be geared towards sustainable and highly efficient designs. Add to that, the development and engineering to a large scale of carbon capture technologies which mimic the pathways for natural carbon capture.
  • Geopolitical conflicts in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of North Africa affect the crude oil price which is a critical consideration for O&G companies in project decisions.
  • In view of climate change and geopolitical conflicts, scientists are in constant search for viable technologies that would lessen our dependence on hydrocarbons. In this case, process engineers have to be more knowledgeable of scaling up “disruptive technologies” into commercially viable scale. Example of this is the development of biofuels and other sources of alternative energy.

Process engineering in the O&G industry seems to be daunting. But understanding its intricacies from the bigger picture leads one to the raison d’etre of the O&G industry which is to make life better for humanity.

 

About the Author

Jed M. Bellen

 

 

Photo credit to Stuart Miles of freedigitalphotos.net

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