Refinery repair: throwing good money at a bad problem

by | January 16, 2018 11:41 am

At the recent investigative hearing on the fuel scarcity crises that has defied all attempts at solution, Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria’s minister of state for petroleum resources said that it was shameful that Africa’s biggest crude oil producer is importing crude oil after 40 years.

Among the options proposed by the minister to solve the problem, is to revamp the refineries so they can start producing optimally. The plan is to raise the refining capacity of the decrepit refineries by 60 percent.

However, Femi James, a UK-based chemical engineer in a series of messages on social media network Twitter, showed why the plan is seriously flawed.

Explaining the process of refining, he said a petroleum refinery essentially subjecting crude oil to multiple physical and chemical processes in units, designed to separate it’s constituent products and by-products. It is highly technical and capital intensive but also a profit making venture.

Through the refining operations, major products separated are premium motor spirit, Automotive gas oil (diesel), aviation turbine or dual purpose kerosene, LPG (cooking gas), etc

The chemical engineer compares the process to putting a pot of water on the burner, after a while, it reaches boiling point and evaporates. The water doesn’t vanish, it vaporises/turns to steam, gaseos “water” at the right temperature and pressure.

“If you take that same pot of water to certain heights, it will do same at lower temperatures. Add salt to the water, and it’s behaviour also changes under the same conditions. This is the principle used in refining crude oil. Under different conditions, the crude releases it’s constituent make up into the surrounding atmosphere,” said James.

These derivatives are trapped and stored either by heat, pressure or additive manipulation. All these are done safely in vessels, tanks and pipes, free of human contact.

James avers that all refineries and indeed chemical plants are fabricated according to the current technology hence Nigeria’s refineries were all built between 1960  and 1980 hence the technology available at the time was largely analogue.

“Everything that was done, at that time, was done manually. Valves, indicators, pumps, Steam generators, mixers, sensors etc were all manual and/or analogue. Nothing was automated.

“Imagine a car built in the 80s, today, how will it look, the gauges, instruments, drive shaft, steering rack, transmission, not to mention the engine, were all done according to the tech of those days. A lot has changed. Our refineries are old,” said James.

However, even when properly maintained, the refineries are due for decommissioning, especially as they get little supply of crude. If upgraded, their life span is increased slightly, depending on the upgrade, but no serious upgrade has been done after 40 years.

Worse still, maintenance has been very poor, “Over the years, coups and counter coups have left Nigeria pillaged and under developed. Our refineries were not spared. As generals helped themselves to the national cake, workers/cronies helped themselves to the refineries’ operational & maintenance budgets. Many of these cronies were not even employed through the right channels or because they were qualified, simply because of leanings, ethnic affiliations and cronyism. Maintenance was neglected, now we are here,” said James.