The crude oil extracted from the oilsands is transformed into products you use in your everyday life.
But how does bitumen get turned into gasoline to fuel your car? Or into propane that you can use to fire up the BBQ? Or the jet fuel for the airplane that takes you on your next vacation? Even paving roads with asphalt requires crude oil...
But how does bitumen get turned into gasoline to fuel your car? Or into propane that you can use to fire up the BBQ? Or the jet fuel for the airplane that takes you on your next vacation? Even paving roads with asphalt requires crude oil.
All these different types of fuels (and more) are referred to as refined petroleum products (RPPs for short). To produce RPPs crude oil has to be processed and separated out into its various components through refinement. Refineries are large industrial structures (they can look like small towns because of their sheer size and complexity) comprising many different parts and processes that produce different RPPs.
The very first step of refining is distillation (or separation). Crude oil, which is heavy and viscous, is heated in a large furnace until it turns into a liquid or vapour. The different chemical components (hydrocarbons) of crude oil boil at different temperatures. As the different vapours rise to the top of the distillation tower they begin to cool and turn into liquids. The distillation tower collects the hydrocarbons (which are called fractions at this point) with similar boiling points by weight. The lighter fractions, such as gasoline, are collected at the top of the distillation tower and require less processing before they can go to market. Heavier fractions require additional steps before they can be made into lighter and more valuable RPPs.
Cracking refines heavier fractions by breaking long hydrocarbon molecule chains into smaller ones using heat and pressure. Often, catalysts are uses to speed up the process. Cracking is referred to as a conversion process because it changes the structure of a hydrocarbon. Coking, a process that produces a coal-like material, is used on the heaviest hydrocarbons, the residue at the bottom of the distillation unit. Coking also relies on heat and pressure to break apart hydrocarbons. Petroleum coke is used for electricity generation and as an industrial fuel.
Another conversion process is called reforming, which rearranges hydrocarbons to make new ones. Naphtha is one of the hydrocarbon fractions produced in distillation and it has a complex molecular structure. Naphtha is useful because it has the same number of atoms as gasoline. Reforming uses a catalyst to create a chemical reaction that rearranges the naphtha molecule into a molecule called a reformate, which is then blended into gasoline.
Alkylation is similar to reforming in that it combines lighter hydrocarbons into more complex ones—essentially the opposite of cracking. It takes the gas by-products from cracking and, using a catalyst, combines them into a new molecular compound.
The next step in refining is treatment to remove impurities, which are unnecessary atoms such as sulfur or nitrogen that might reduce the quality of the end-product. This is done in a few different ways. For example, one method uses an acid to dissolve the unwanted compounds in the fractions. And another method “dries out” the product by removing water molecules through absorbing agents.
Blending can be considered the final step of the refining process when the different fractions and compounds that have been distilled, converted, and treated are then mixed together to produce different variations of gasoline (think of the different types of gasoline you can get at the fuel pump when filling up a car). This produces different grades of gasoline to meet different specifications for vehicles.
Refining is a big part of Canada’s economy. In 2018, Canada produced about 1.9 million barrels of RPPs per day. Nearly a quarter of that was exported, mostly to the United States. Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario have the largest refining capacities in Canada. Regional patterns of refinement and demand result in Canada having to import some RPPs from United State.
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