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HP09 Optimize coker operations 10/6/03 11:05 AM Page 85

Reprinted from:
Sept 2003 issue, pgs 85–90
Used with permission.


Optimize coker operations

Refiners can update coking units via two methods—recycle or zero-
recycle operations. Depending on the capability of downstream units
either option can be used as part of clean-fuels program
J. D. ELLIOTT, Foster Wheeler USA Corp. Houston, Texas.

TABLE 1. Comparison of typical fuel-coke and

elayed cokers are the most effective processes to decarbonize
and demetallize heavy petroleum residues. This refining pro- anode-coke operations
cess can provide 20% to 40% of the downstream hydropro- Operation Fuel-grade coke Anode coke
cessing feedstocks. Optimizing coker operation is crucial to any Feed type Heavy, high sulfur VR Light, sweet VR
clean fuels program. Effective use of coker recycle can improve unit
Operating conditions Low pressure Moderate pressure
yields and the quality of coker-liquid products. Zero-recycle and
Ultra-low recycle Moderate recycle
ultra-low recycle operations for fuel-grade coking can be effectively
Fuel gas lv% FOE 5.11 6.76
to optimize coker integration in a clean fuels program.
C3/C4 LPG lv% 7.31 8.15
Upgrading bottoms products. Delayed coker modifications Naphtha lv% 19.87 13.92
are commonly implemented in clean fuel programs along with mod- Light coker gas oil lv% 24.49 33.00
ified or new distillate and cat-feed hydrotreaters. The economic and Heavy coker gas oil lv% 29.22 25.74
reliable operation of these units involves reviewing feedstocks includ- Coke wt% 30.51 29.92
ing the properties of cracked feeds from delayed coking operations.
The preference to have the delayed coker produce clean son carbon and C7 insoluble contents, which can have deleterious
hydroprocessing feedstocks may compete with the need to improve impacts on downstream hydroprocessing and other catalytic units.
coker operations to process heavier feedstocks and/or increase Condensed recycle stream is reinjected into the feed stream and
capacity. Delayed coker debottlenecking strategies for these ini- recycled to extinction. This conversion of heavy, high-boiling com-
tiatives generally include shorter cycles to process heavy feeds and ponents enables producing lighter products and some coke.
higher pressures to accommodate capacity increases. Since the Besides cleanup of undesirable materials in the coke-drum
coker can provide 20% to 40% of the downstream hydropro- vapors, recycle is used in other situations:
cessing feedstock, optimizing product quality is crucial. Conversion of heavy coker gas oil (HCGO). The complete
In general, cokers producing fuel-quality-byproduct coke are or partial conversion of HCGO reduces heavy fuel oil by coking
operated to maximize liquids and minimize coke. Since the coker residue for refineries that lack capital facilities to process HCGO
pressure is usually constrained by capacity requirements and cok- in a downstream catalytic unit. Alternative sale markets for
ing temperature can only be varied over a small band, recycle is the untreated cracked heavy-gas oil may be limited or available only at
swing operating parameter. Modifications to reduce coking pres- low pricing. This practice produces more coke than an ultra-low
sure and gain liquid yield benefits are possible; however, they are recycle operation and also generates higher yields of gas, cracked
often expensive and require long shutdowns. naphtha and middle distillates.
Except under special circumstances, fuel-grade delayed cokers Coke property improvement. Producing high-quality nee-
generally operate at conditions that use recycle to fresh feed ratios dle coke from aromatic tars with no asphaltenes or very high-
of less than 10%. Ultra-low-recycle ratios are less than 5% and quality anode grade coke from paraffinic, low-sulfur residues com-
zero-recycle cokers have no recycle. The choice of these opera- monly requires using high-recycle operations especially for the
tions is often a function of the ability of the downstream pro- former. Both coke types are specialty markets. Although needle
cessing capability to economically handle the heavy gas oil qual- coke is anisotropic and anode coke is isotropic the nature of the
ity from the recycle or zero-recycle operation. feedstocks and desired coke properties dictate the use of recycle to
produce the appropriate quality. Table 1 compares the yields of a
Role of recycling. The delayed coking process is one of the typical anode operation with a fuel-grade coker operation.
most effective methods to decarbonize and demetallize heavy Protecting older/overloaded hydrotreaters/hydrocrackers. In
petroleum residues. Recycle is formed by condensing the high- some instances, refiners will operate cokers at a recycle ratio of 10%
boiling components that vaporize and entrain within the coke- to further reduce the Conradson carbon residue (CCR), heptane
drum vapors. This back-end “tail” contains high metals, Conrad- insolubles (HIS) and metals in the HCGO to protect older or over-
HP09 Optimize coker operations 10/6/03 11:05 AM Page 86


500 76


Liquid yield, lv%

Delta tpd coke


0 64
1 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5
FIG. 1. Recycle and Delta coke production for a 25,000-bpsd FIG. 2. Recycle effects on liquid products of a delayed coker.
coker using recycle concepts.

loaded downstream units. For instance when a coker operates in Reducing recycle lowers capital and operating costs. The single
ultra-low-recycle mode, it produces an HCGO with a CCR con- largest variable factor in operating costs is fuel consumption. The
tent in the range of 0.65–0.8% at 10% recycle; the CCR content incremental reduction for fuel cost with lower recycle for a typical
would be 0.3%. Likewise, the metals contents and heptane insolu- 25,000-bpsd coker is shown in Fig. 4.
ables are reduced.
Achieving ultra-low recycle operation. Reducing recy-
Shot-coke control. Some refiners continue using medium- cle in an existing 10% recycle operation to ultra-low recycle will
high recycle ratios to control shot-coke issues. This is frequently have an immediate beneficial impact. Recycle is produced by the
seen in older units, which have not had the unheading system direct condensation of the distillate “tail” in the coke-drum vapors.
and coke handling operations updated. This is less of a problem if This condensation is the result of:
anode quality coke is to be produced; yet, it generally offers poor • Direct injection of quench oil, usually HCGO, to mini-
economics for fuel cokers due to reduced liquid product yields. mize coking in the overhead line
Coker operations should be set for the refiner’s optimum operation, • Heat losses in the overhead line
and shot coke issues can be managed by a three prong approach: • Fractionator internal reflux or, preferably, HCGO pump-
• Coker design back wash oil, which is used to provide a “wash” cleanup of par-
• Operating procedures ticulates and tars entrained in the coke-drum vapors and mitigate
• Operator training and instructions. their contamination of the HCGO.
Heat losses are controlled by line insulation. The bulk of the
Control of furnace coking. A few refiners use recycle and/or recycle generation is from using quench oil and pumpback wash.
other diluents to control furnace-coil coking and improve heater To operate at very low recycle ratios, both must be carefully con-
run lengths by diluting partially converted, asphaltenes-rich liquid trolled. If all the recycle were to be generated by line quench, then
in the furnace. This is valid when dealing with poor furnace design the lack of wash results in “dirty” HCGO product. Conversely
or operation issues. If the recycle rate is greater than needed for without adequate line quench, the overhead line is subject to cok-
downstream processing units, refinery economics suffer due to ing. When coking occurs downstream of isolation vapors, the
liquid product loss. Excess recycle or diluent also increases oper- coker may be shutdown due to severe line plugging. To effectively
ating fuel costs and limits ultimate coker capacity. The effective- use minimum quench oil, consider using either temperature or
ness of light diluents is lost due to their vaporization at the hot, delta temperature control for injection. A spray nozzle is the pre-
high-fouling end of the heater coil. Solutions to manage heater ferred injection device.
fouling to achieve longer runs are: Contact of wash oil with “dirty” vapors is done via a trayed or
 Use a better heater design. If a new heater is warranted, packed wash section in higher recycle cokers, e.g. those with recy-
consider a slope-wall, double-fired furnace that is proven effec- cle ratios above 7 or 8%. Wash oil to packed wash sections must
tive in processing heavy coker feedstocks. be carefully controlled to ensure continuous wetting during drum
 Apply an effective online spalling technique. switches and operating upsets.
The amount of wash zone liquid in an ultra-low recycle operation
Impact of reducing recycle. Effects from reducing the recy- is too low to prevent coking of trays or packing. A spray-chamber con-
cle ratio are: cept is recommended for wash oil-dirty vapor contact; this method is
• Lower coke production proven and economic. Typically, shed decks are located below the spray
• Higher liquid product yield. chamber and above the tower vapor inlet to distribute vapor across
Figs. 1 and 2 illustrate operation performance for a typical the tower and provide impingement baffles for entrained liquid droplets.
25,000-bpsd coker operation. Additionally, as the yield of liquid Design details at the bottom of the fractionator are important
products increases, yield distribution changes. The liquid products to prevent recycle generation by contact with feed which is not
become heavier with less naphtha and light-coker-gas oil (LCGO) at saturation conditions (Fig. 5). The revamp results for an older,
and more heavy-coker-gas oil (HCGO). Furthermore, the HCGO trayed coker fractionator to ultra-low recycle operation using a
has a higher end point and mid-boiling point as shown in Fig. 3. spray chamber concept are listed in Table 2.
HP09 Optimize coker operations 10/6/03 11:05 AM Page 88


1,200 400

Delta fuel cost, $thousand/yr

Temperature, °F


700 TPR=1.05 100
0 20 40 60 80 100 0
D-1160 distillation, % 1 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5
FIG. 3. As recycling rations increase, the heavy coker gas oil
becomes a heavier product with a higher boiling FIG. 4. With lower recycle efforts, fuel consumption decreases
temperature. rapidly.

Inspecting the bulk properties of the HCGO from the revamp ity starts to approach the quality of the coker feedstock as shown
operation implies a feedstock change from the original operation in Table 4.
and design basis. That, coupled with measurement tolerances, At high coking pressure, such as in an older coker operated at
will explain the lower MCR content of the HCGO. While these highly debottlenecked capacity, the end point and other contam-
results are typical, the actual variation in fractionator performance inants in the XHCGO or combined HCGO/XHCGO is reduced
and HCGO properties also depends on fractionator vapor veloc- comparably.
ity, design compromises for fractionator internals, and feedstock Thus, the potential benefits of a zero-recycle operation are
and yield issues. dependent on whether the downstream hydroprocessing or con-
version units can economically tolerate the high contaminant lev-
Zero recycle considerations. The absolute minimum limit els in the XHCGO portion of coker liquids.
for recycle operation is zero recycle, sometimes referred to as “once A hydrocracker will not be able to economically handle the
through” or “single-pass.” In a true zero-recycle operation, any contaminants. If the downstream processing unit for the HCGO
liquid produced from line quench or washing of fractionator inlet is a hydrocracker, then a recycle operation is required. The percent
vapors is collected as an extra-heavy coker gas oil product coker recycle to be used will depend on the hydrocracking tech-
(XHCGO) and is not recycled to extinction. Operations, with nology used.
measured zero recycle derived from flow meter measurements When the coker is part of a complex that produces synthetic
where overhead line liquids are not collected, are not true zero crude oil from bitumen, the HCGO/XHCGO quality issues may
recycle. Engineering and product analyses will typically indicate that not be as important. This is the case for a zero-recycle coker recently
the system operates with 2% to 3% recycle. started up in Latin America. Operating a zero-recycle coker imposes
Zero-recycle operations have several benefits—minimizing a few special issues such as:
coke make and maximizing liquid product yields. Generally, this Coke fines. The XHCGO is a bottoms product that is nor-
material is recombined with HCGO or drawn from the fraction- mally collected separately from the lighter HCGO. The XHCGO
ator. Table 3 compares zero-recycle yields with ultra-low recycle will collect coke fines entrained in the coke-drum vapors. In a recy-
operations. cle operation with a fractionator fines recovery system, these fines are
The quality of the zero recycle HCGO is degraded when directed back to the coke drums via the heater charge pump. Coke
compared to ultra-low recycle operation. The incremental qual- fines must be captured before storage or downstream processing.
Fractionation. Since the XHCGO or combined HCGO is
generated as a liquid in the wash zone, its composition is affected
TABLE 2. Spray chamber conversion and operation by the full range of light components in the coke-drum vapors. The
Original Revamp Actual practical fractionation between the HCGO and the XHCGO is
operation predictions operation
Recycle, lv% 10 5 3.6 to 5.4
Wash oil+
TABLE 3. Yield comparison for ultra-low recycle and
true-zero recycle operations
O/H Quench, bpsd – 10,800 10,600 to 12,600
HCGO Properties Ultra-low recycle True-zero recycle Increment
D-1160 EP, °F 976 1016 992 AVG Dry Gas, lv% FOE 5.80 5.78 +0.02
Gravity, API 17.0 16.3 20.3 AVG C3 /C4 , lv% 7.27 7.07 +0.20
Sulfur, wt% 2.55 2.93 1.93 AVG Naphtha, lv% 13.34 12.41 +0.93
Nitrogen, wt% 2200 2400 2240 AVG LCGO, lv% 32.52 30.48 +2.04
MCR, wt% 0.38 0.9 0.69 AVG/0.94 MAX HCGO, lv% 24.02 27.83 –3.81
Solids, ppmw 9 15 15 AVG Coke, wt% 32.73 31.43 +1.30


HP09 Optimize coker operations 10/6/03 11:05 AM Page 90


line quench
Wash oil Pumparound
spray chamber
Wash around
oil heat
Coke drum HCGO removal
OVHD vapor Close off quench Coker
feed to (high fractionator
Heat sheds rate) Wash
shield oil
Eliminate fresh
feed splashing Fresh Coker (Vapor +
feed drum liquid)

Heater Online Strainer Filter HCGO

charge fines removal Fresh feed around product
from coker Fractionator HCGO
heater bottoms circ. pump pump
FIG. 5. Ultra-low-recycle design for a delayed coker.
FIG. 6. In this zero-recycle coker design, HCGO and XHCGO are
combined by direct quench and recovered as a bottom
limited. The XHCGO has a high average boiling point and is product.
produced in the hottest section of the coker fractionator. There-
fore, any surge volume of this material is subject to coking by drawn as a heavy-fuel-oil-blend component. If recycle is needed,
condensation reactions of free radicals. To avoid this condition, it is from the backend of the tar separator vapors, which are frac-
direct quench of the XHCGO should be considered. tionated in a “bubble tower.” This concept adds to the coking
Disposition of XHCGO. If the downstream processing units pressure, and the separator is a maintenance headache due to cok-
can economically handle the quality degradation, XHCGO is ing. Likewise, using a wash-zone draw pan is suggested. Although
generally reblended with the HCGO. In this case, the fractiona- used in other processes for decades, when located below a coking
tion between the two products is not a concern. Increased coke fines wash zone, a collection pan is subject to coke build-up and dis-
in the combined product is dealt with by using a filter system for lodgement during foamovers and other upsets.
the coker and by upgrading the filter in the hydrotreating unit. Newer zero-recycle designs recover the XHCGO or combined
XHCGO may be recovered as a separate product and used as HCGO/XHCGO in the bottom of the fractionator where heater
FCC feedstock and hydrotreated. The quality issues may be mit- surge time is usually provided. Adequate fresh feed surge time is fre-
igated if the coker operating pressure is elevated for capacity debot- quently provided in offsite tankage; if not, then a feed drum is
tlenecks. Alternatively, it can be used as heavy-fuel-oil-blend stock. provided for that purpose. This concept ensures a robust design and
This usage may still be attractive if the cutter stock is valued as reliable operation.
an alternative distillate, e.g., kerosine. In rare situations where better fractionation is desired between
HCGO and XHCGO bottoms products, a stripper on the
Coker configuration for zero recycle. Some very old XHCGO can be specified. This can be located either in the bot-
zero-cycle cokers use a tar separator to collect overhead line liquids tom of the fractionator, if space permits, or as an external tower
produced from the coke-drum-overhead line. Tar liquids are with- with a pumped feed supply.
Another zero-recycle coker design included a revamp for higher
TABLE 4. Comparison of heavy coker gas oil capacity. The new capacity made the fractionator too small for a
properties for ultra-low recycle and true-zero recycle conventional fractionator layout. The solution was to condense the
operations combined HCGO and XHCGO product by direct quench in the
coke-drum overhead line and recover it as a bottoms product. The
Properties Ultra-low recycle True-zero recycle Increment processing scheme debottlenecked the fractionator and minimized
Gravity, ºAPI 12.78 11.55 4.35 capital requirements for the project (Fig. 6). HP
Sulfur, wt% 2.58 2.55 2.37
Nitrogen, wppm 5303 5087 3806
CCR, wt% 0.53 2.43 13.70
C7 Insolubles, wppm 432 2000 11,300
Ni + V, wppm 1.0 3.8 20.4 John D. Elliott is the Deputy Director for Refining and Coking—
Process Design and Development for Foster Wheeler USA Corp.,
Houston, Texas. He joined Foster Wheeler in 1967 and has over 30
10% lv 729 734 years total experience in refining process engineering. His assignments have involved
50% lv 864 893 1074 VABP process design and operating follow up on numerous refining units, and delayed
coker projects. Mr. Elliott has presented and published many papers on heavy-oils pro-
EP 1072 1141 cessing and in particular, delayed coking. Mr. Elliott holds a BS degree in chemical engi-
Watson K 11.13 11.12 11.07 neering from Pennsylvania State University and is a member of AIChE.
For information contact 281/597-3037 or e-mail

Article copyright © 2003 by Gulf Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Printed in U.S.A.