Treatment processes in petroleum refining

October 9, 2011, 9:19 pm
Source: OSHA


caption Oil refinery. Photo: DOE

Treating in petroleum refining is a means by which contaminants such as organic compounds containing sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen; dissolved metals and inorganic salts; and soluble salts dissolved in emulsified water are removed from petroleum fractions or streams. Petroleum refiners have a choice of several different treating processes, but the primary purpose of the majority of them is the elimination of unwanted sulfur compounds. A variety of intermediate and finished products, including middle distillates, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, and sour gases are dried and sweetened. Sweetening, a major refinery treatment of gasoline, treats sulfur compounds (hydrogen sulfide, thiophene and mercaptan) to improve color, odor, and oxidation stability. Sweetening also reduces concentrations of carbon dioxide.

Treating can be accomplished at an intermediate stage in the refining process, or just before sending the finished product to storage. Choices of a treating method depend on the nature of the petroleum fractions, amount and type of impurities in the fractions to be treated, the extent to which the process removes the impurities, and end-product specifications. Treating materials include acids, solvents, alkalis, oxidizing, and adsorption agents.

Acid, Caustic, or Clay Treating

Sulfuric acid is the most commonly used acid treating process. Sulfuric acid treating results in partial or complete removal of unsaturated hydrocarbons, sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen compounds, and resinous and asphaltic compounds. It is used to improve the odor, color, stability, carbon residue, and other properties of the oil. Clay/lime treatment of acid-refined oil removes traces of asphaltic materials and other compounds improving product color, odor, and stability. Caustic treating with sodium (or potassium) hydroxide is used to improve odor and color by removing organic acids (naphthenic acids, phenols) and sulfur compounds (mercaptans, H2S) by a caustic wash. By combining caustic soda solution with various solubility promoters (e.g., methyl alcohol and cresols), up to 99% of all mercaptans as well as oxygen and nitrogen compounds can be dissolved from petroleum fractions.

Drying and Sweetening

caption Molecular sieve drying in petroleum refining. Source: Occupational Safety & Health Administration

Feedstocks from various Petroleum refining refinery units are sent to gas treating plants where butanes and butenes are removed for use as alkylation feedstock, heavier components are sent to gasoline blending, propane is recovered for LPG, and propylene is removed for use in petrochemicals. Some mercaptans are removed by water-soluble chemicals that react with the mercaptans. Caustic liquid (sodium hydroxide), amine compounds (diethanolamine) or fixed-bed catalyst sweetening also may be used. Drying is accomplished by the use of water absorption or adsorption agents to remove water from the products. Some processes simultaneously dry and sweeten by adsorption on molecular sieves.

Sulfur Recovery

Sulfur recovery converts hydrogen sulfide in sour gases and hydrocarbon streams to elemental sulfur. The most widely used recovery system is the Claus process, which uses both thermal and catalytic-conversion reactions. A typical process produces elemental sulfur by burning hydrogen sulfide under controlled conditions. Knockout pots are used to remove water and hydrocarbons from feed gas streams. The gases are then exposed to a catalyst to recover additional sulfur. Sulfur vapor from burning and conversion is condensed and recovered.

Hydrogen Sulfide Scrubbing

Hydrogen sulfide scrubbing is a common treating process in which the hydrocarbon feedstock is first scrubbed to prevent catalyst poisoning. Depending on the feedstock and the nature of contaminants, desulfurization methods vary from ambient temperature-activated charcoal absorption to high-temperature catalytic hydrogenation followed by zinc oxide treating.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2011). Treatment processes in petroleum refining. Retrieved from


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