Reactor ends long journey to refinery

Sep 9, 2008

Reactor ends long journey to refinery

Of The Gazette Staff
A 450-ton reactor was slowly trucked into the ConocoPhillips Billings refinery Saturday morning, ending a trip from Japan and starting the path to lower-sulfur gasoline.

The hydrotreating reactor will help the company meet new federal standards for reducing sulfur in gasoline to one-quarter its current amount, said Carl Siroky, who is project manager for the work at ConocoPhillips Billings.

It was a long trip to get the reactor here, and there is still much work to do before it operates.

A lift tower was built at the refinery, and an assembly crane is in place to position the reactor on its foundation. Starting later this month, piping will be installed to connect the reactor to the refinery system. The reactor will go online in April, after the refinery finishes a partial turnaround.

The reactor, which spans 140 feet, was slowly moved from the rail line near the Public Auction Yards on a specialized truck. Barnhart Crane and Rigging of Memphis, Tenn., was hired to move the reactor through Billings and lift it into place. There were no local companies that could do such a specialized lift, Siroky said. A Billings company, Strongs Crane Service, which has worked in the refinery since it was built in the late 1940s, is assisting with the project.

Shipping cost nearly as much as the $4 million reactor, Siroky said.

"It's high, wide and heavy," he said, making it a "special load that required special logistics."

The reactor started an almost two-month journey in Japan and was taken by ship around the world and into the Great Lakes. It was moved to a special train and brought by rail to Billings and then by truck into the refinery. Planning for that trip started even before ConocoPhillips selected a vendor, Siroky said. The reactor was ordered from Sumitomo Heavy Industries in Japan during August 2006.

Transportation "is a unique challenge you have, being an inland refinery," Sikory said. "You often have to design equipment around the available transportation routes."

The reactor could have been built shorter, Siroky said, but that would have meant a larger diameter, which would have limited its ability to be shipped by rail from Minnesota to Montana. By building the reactor 140 feet long (or high, once it is standing), engineers were able to keep its diameter at 11 feet, which made rail shipment possible.

How it works
The reactor creates a catalytic process that removes sulfur from gas oil, which ConocoPhillips refines into gasoline and other products. The refinery already removes sulfur from gas oil, but this reactor will use more pressure and heat and eliminate even more sulfur.

The change is needed because of a change in federal law from the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the amount of sulfur in gasoline.

The law requires refineries to reduce the sulfur in gasoline from 120 parts per million to an average of less than 30 ppm.

When crude oil comes into the refinery, it is blended in tanks. That product goes to a crude unit and the first cut in sulfur is made. Some gas comes off and it is post-treated to remove sulfur.

Gas oil goes into another stream and it goes through the hydrotreater to remove more sulfur. Before gas oil is treated, it has about 2,000 ppm of sulfur, Siroky said. The current pretreatment cuts the sulfur rate to about 400 ppm.

The new regulation for refineries like ConocoPhillips in Billings takes effect on Jan. 1. Other refineries, including those on the East, West and Gulf coasts, have already made the change, Siroky said. The Billings reactor won't be online until spring, when a partial turnaround is completed by April.

Until then, ConocoPhillips's existing equipment will "crack harder," Siroky said, to meet the federal standard. The current reactor will be turned up to use more heat and pressure, but that will consume more of its catalyst. Siroky said that although the equipment can meet the new requirement, it can't do so for the long term, which is why ConocoPhillips added capacity with the new reactor.

Industry partners with the government to develop new regulations, Siroky said, but it is sometimes hard to keep pace.

"We do everything we can to meet the regulations," he said. "As fast as we're meeting the regulations, new ones are coming up."

Integrated companies like ConocoPhillips are making money on the exploration end of their businesses but are simultaneously pouring money into the refining end to both increase capacity and keep up with changes like the sulfur reduction, Siroky said.

"We're hypersensitive to our impact on the community," he said.

Contact Becky Shay at or 657-1231.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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