Inside the machine - Journey to the center of a refining and petrochemical facility

12/04/2018

Inside the machine

Journey to the center
of a refining and petrochemical facility

Joss and Erwann spent three days and three nights at Total’s Feyzin refining and petrochemical complex near Lyon, France, to tour the site, discover little-known professions and report back on what they found in a travel diary/graphic documentary format.

Introduction

Off we go!

Sunday
july 2

I check my train ticket one more time: departure at 5:09 p.m. I’d better get going, especially since I told Erwann that I’d meet him 15 minutes ahead of time. A last look at the weather app tells me it’s going to be hot. So I take out the sweater I packed just in case, and replace it with a sixth T-shirt. Better be prepared, since I’ve heard that it gets very hot in coveralls, “inside the Machine.”

Georges, the site boss, greets us as soon as we come in: “I’ve seen your tour schedule, my friends, and trust me, you’re going to be busy!”
Map of the refining and petrochemical facility
This is what the site looks like on paper. But what exactly goes on in a refining and petrochemical facility?
A refinery separates the different components of incoming crude oil to obtain all sorts of products, from jet fuel and fuel oil to asphalt, liquefied petroleum gas and automotive fuel.
Among other things, refineries produce a petrochemical feedstock called naphtha. If you heat the naphtha to 800°C for just a few milliseconds, you get lots of substances with strange-sounding names like ethylene, propylene and butadiene, which in turn are used to make products with even stranger- sounding names, including polyethylene, polypropylene and other members of the “-ene” family. At the end of the chain, you get plastic.
Is it clearer now?
Not so fast! First you have to get a safety briefing.

Safety is serious business...

CoveralsCoverals
Hard hat, protective gloves and protective earmuffsHard hat,
protective googles
and protective
earmuffs
Safety bootsSafety
boots
Gas maskGas mask
GlovesGloves
You need quite a wardrobe...

As you come to the security gate, beast — a huge expanse of pipes and metal, vibrating and growling in the distance. What impresses me the most is the feeling that the Machine is alive — and alone. The site seems deserted from our vantage point.

The security guard comes over to check us out. I sure hope we’re on the guest list. Guests? That may sound funny, but it’s a little like getting into a club here. Except the dress code calls for safety boots. I can’t wait to get a closer look!

The portable gas detector is a very important device that you always have to have on you, sort of like your smartphone — except you can’t have a smartphone on site (#sad). Actually, it looks more like a big yellow MP3 player.
The detector measures the concentration of combustible gas in the air so it can alert the wearer if there is any potentially life-threatening hydrogen sulfide (H₂S) present and warn them of the risk of an explosion. All you really need to know is that if it beeps, you need to get to a safe area quickly — VERY quickly. During our visit, we held onto our explosion meters (I like that name better) just as tightly as they were fastened to our coverall pockets.
Gas detector
If it ever beeps look at the windsocks and go as fast as you can to an exit perpendicular to the wind!CharactersGot it guys?
Oops, one important thing I forgot to tell you: be sure to turn the gas detector off when you leave the site, because if the batteries run out, it beeps. Let’s just say that my second night at the hotel was slightly hair-raising. I almost ran down to the front desk at 3 a.m. to demand that the entire hotel be evacuated because my explosion meter went off!
And takes a lot of know-how
Riquet

The fire station

“Pride and passion” are the words that come to mind after spending a few hours among these burly firefighters, with their shiny helmets and hearts of gold.
They’re raring to go, so we can see and learn as much as possible.
“What do you mean you don’t know how to use a fire extinguisher?”
“No, no — that one’s for electrical fires!”
“Turn the safety pin, don’t pull it.”
Next thing you know we’re in the fire truck, on our way to the training field.
It’s every eight-year-old’s dream come true. In our helmets, Erwann and I hold our heads high and play with the siren.

The answer is obvious: it’s much easier to have professional firefighters nearby in case of an accident. They are familiar with the combustible materials and gases on the site, and that knowledge can certainly come in handy!
What’s more, they offer first-response and firefighting training to the staff, a little like with us today. Lastly, they are on call 24/7 and can intervene at a moment’s notice. That certainly makes me feel safer about the rest of our visit.

The gas flare

The gas flare

The flare is really fascinating. On the one hand, you’re drawn to it because it’s very, very big — sort of like the Eiffel Tower. On the other hand, it makes you a bit nervous, because it shoots out a big flame and a lot of smoke now and again.

The flare isn’t just for decoration. When a unit stops operating, the gas that can’t be stored (a really hazardous idea) or released (the neighbors wouldn’t be happy) is burned off, or flared. The flare is like a safety valve.
The gas I’m talking about is made up of light hydrocarbons, members of the famous “-ane” family like methane, ethane, propane and butane. In short, what is known as city gas, which, by the way, doesn’t let off any toxic fumes when it burns.

Actually, the flare is sort of like a giant camping stove. It’s necessary, practical and non-toxic, but should still be handled with care.

“Just like in star wars”

Refining: crude gets a makeover

The control room
A.K.A. the tripode

Your ears pop and your other senses tell you right away when you’re in a control room, because it’s blast proof. To enter, you have to come through a pressurized air lock, a lot like in a submarine.
The image isn’t so far-fetched, because these buildings must be able to withstand an explosion and be completely self-contained in the event of an accident.
When you actually walk into the big control room, it puts you in mind of a Star Wars spaceship. Picture an enormous console with dozens of flashing screens. A ten-person crew looks up to greet us. It’s proper etiquette to shake each person’s hand, which takes a little while.

So, you may ask, just what do you control in a control room?

The team controls all the petroleum streams and all the different processes the incoming crude undergoes. All of the pipes, valves and operations are monitored and regulated, as are the volume, temperature and pressure of products and gases.
As you can see, the maze of pipes out-side is completely under control, with three eighthour shifts ensuring 24-hour vigilance. The Machine is no laughing matter. When you’re inside, it’s absolutely fascinating.

In the end, it's the same job as Homer Simpson's
“In the end, it's the same job as Homer Simpson's”
What’s even more fascinating is that the amount and type of products that come out are calibrated with external demand in real time. It’s as if the complex were plugged into a much wider network — the market itself.
“We need to put out less jet fuel and more naphtha for the petrochemical unit, because demand is high right now. OK, here we go, let’s adjust the levels!
Inside the belly of the beast

“Hey guys, thought you were hot in your coveralls? You can’t leave until you see a furnace!”
Just to give you a little background, today is July 3 and it’s about 35°C outside in the sun and at least 50°C inside my coveralls. I’ve already gone through two T-shirts today.
“Hope you’re not afraid of heights — we’re going to have to climb a bit.”

With that, Stéphane, a combustion and energy engineer, marches us off across the site in the sweltering heat to the bottom of the giant furnace.
The contrast with the Tripod is like night and day: there’s not a living soul, but the noise is unbelievable.
A giant ladder stands before us. Better not look down… I glance at my bulky safety boots and wonder how such big feet will fit on such small rungs.

Inside the belly of the beast

With a bit of effort, and after a few scary moments for some of us, we make it to a little platform overlooking the entire site. It’s a very impressive view. The temperature is higher up here too. I’m dripping wet as I scan the horizon, with my legs still shaking. Erwann has already pulled his sketchpad out of his pocket.
Stéphane opens a little trap door in the furnace wall so we can peek inside, as long as we’re careful not to stare straight in.
I lean over to look at the huge firebox. A glowing inferno looks ready to burn everything in sight. Its force is intense and the heat is intolerable (more than 800°C).
I’ve seen the sacred fire in the belly of the beast.

“You have to see the furnace, the belly of the beast.”
Stéphane checks the flue gas composition using a portable analyzer that measures SO₂, NO₂ and CO₂ emissions and oxygen content.
The furnace
The furnace we visited is part of the atmospheric distillation unit, where the very first step of refining takes place. Crude oil heated to around 370°C is channeled into the giant column to be separated into different gases and liquids that will then be transferred to other units.
Vital

Petrochemicals: it's going to crack

The control tower
“CENTRAL COMMAND”
A.K.A. the Cube

Walking into the Cube, I have a sense of déjà vu: it’s the Tripod all over again. The same giant consoles, the same spread of screens, the same Star Wars atmosphere. And, of course, the same ritual of shaking hands when you come in. This time, our guide is a fellow named Vital, who bravely tries to explain petrochemicals to us in his Alsace-tinged accent. Good thing he’s patient!

He calmly walks us through the process:
“Here, we’re trying to get as much ethylene as possible.”
“This B305 here on my screen is a cold box unit where the temperature can go down to -160°C.”
“Then we split the molecules to get C₁ (methane), among other things.”
“The C303 column here on my screen is 60 meters high.”
And it keeps on coming...

Vital obviously loves to talk about his job, but I must admit he lost me after a while. I try to look like I’m still tuned in and ask a leading question: “What time do we have lunch?”

(so you can find your way on site
and on screen)

P = Pump
D = Drum
C = Compressor
T = Turbine
C = Column
E = Exchanger
The control tower
- So, given that we’ve got C₂ coming out here first, what would the next fractionator be called?
- Um ...
- The deethanizer of course! Because two carbon atoms means ethane.

Pipes, pipes everywhere

“You can’t write about petrochemicals without seeing the steam cracker. C’mon guys!”

Accompanied by two operators, we find ourselves in a maze of pipes that rises so high barely a ray of sunlight can make it through.
We climb a ladder, cross a platform, turn right, then left, go straight ahead and climb another staircase.

“DIDN’T WE ALREADY WALK PAST HERE?
IT LOOKS FAMILIAR.”

There’s no one to be seen anywhere. Nothing around us except for a bit of steam from time to time. And a tangle of pipes, as far as the eye can see. In less than 10 minutes, I’ve completely lost my sense of direction.
I fall into step with the steady roar filling my ears. I can’t hear a thing that our guides are saying as they point to an enormous machine. I just nod in agreement. The hike goes on. It’s only afterwards that I realize I’ve just walked through a steam cracker. I had no idea where I was.

The steam cracker components include giant furnaces in which the temperature rises to more than 800°C in less than a second. It churns out all of the basic molecules used in petrochemicals.

Here’s how it works, just in case you want to impress your friends: As I explained earlier — but you might have forgotten since then — the steam cracker takes a feedstock called naphtha and cracks its molecules. (I love how that sounds!) Naphtha is obtained at the refinery through atmospheric distillation.
Cracking means breaking down big molecules into smaller ones by heating them up. The more you break them down — or in other words, split them apart — the more you can put them back together again to get the specific molecules you want. And then you can go on to make plastics like polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester.
Got all that? You’ll be a real hit next time you’re a guest at a dinner party.

And never ever...ChhhhhhGot it ????Characters

A winning combination

Synergy is life

You might wonder why a company would want to have refining and petrochemical operations on the same site. They do have a lot in common: you take a substance, heat it up and process it into a whole range of marketable products.
But there are a lot of differences too, especially when it comes to what the products are used for.
Rule of thumb:

Refining = Fuels
Petrochemicals = Plastics
That’s the quick explanation.

The real advantage to having the two together is that they create a loop. When you refine crude oil, you always get naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock. And on the petrochemical side, when you put naphtha through the steam cracker, you always get hydrogen, an essential component in the refining process. Pretty cool, huh?
So as you can see, there’s plenty of back and forth. It’s a great way to save time and energy — in other words, it’s more efficient.

In the Cube's kitchen

The tank farm takes up a large portion of the site — a good half, as you can see on the flap map. My aching feet are proof, after having visited the whole storage area, from north to south and from east to west.
This is where all the products go before being shipped — liquids into cylindrical tanks and gases into spherical ones. Their stay can be a long one. Some products have to be heated to a set temperature, while others must be cooled. Sometimes they need to be slowly and continuously mixed. The tanks can also be used for blending,

to achieve the best fuel cocktails.

There’s the summer collection, with fewer very light products that are explosive when temperatures are high, and the winter collection, blended differently so the fuel doesn’t freeze in your car’s gas tank.
Truth be told, there’s really a lot going on in these unassuming rows and rows of tanks.
I must say you feel very small standing next to them. There are hundreds of millions of liters of products in there.
I look at a ladder and ask if we can climb up.

Quality control, then out the door

RCIS: expert analysis

OK, we’ve been here for quite a while now and we still haven’t seen a single drop of oil. Maybe it’s time to visit the lab, which performs 110,000 analyses each year. There’s bound to be some petroleum products in there! The Machine has its own laboratory, with scientists in white lab coats and their pens in plastic pocket protectors.
Although they look a bit like the cast of a TV crime series, the experts are here to make sure that the products comply with market standards and quality criteria.

Looking at the big white sinks, the test tubes and the beakers lined up on mats, That oddly familiar smell wafting through the air makes me rather glad I’m not in middle school anymore. Instead of a teacher, we’ve got Philippe to guide us around the room. The main thing you need to know is that there are two types of analyses: one for products in the pipeline, to fine-tune the units and optimize their yield and energy efficiency, and one for finished products at the end of the line, to ensure they comply with standards.

As for me, I’m especially interested in the asphalt penetration test. I must be channeling my 14-year old self in chemistry lab...

I feel like I’ve beamed back to my middle-school chemistry class.
LaboratoryAudreyDamien
Laboratory

Looking at the big white sinks, the test tubes and the beakers lined up on mats, That oddly familiar smell wafting through the air makes me rather glad I’m not in middle school anymore. Instead of a teacher, we’ve got Philippe to guide us around the room. The main thing you need to know is that there are two types of analyses: one for products in the pipeline, to fine-tune the units and optimize their yield and energy efficiency, and one for finished products at the end of the line, to ensure they comply with standards.

As for me, I’m especially interested in the asphalt penetration test. I must be channeling my 14-year old self in chemistry lab...

“That's some great-looking asphalt, let me tell you!”
Expeditions

He is full of fascinating anecdotes. We keep him talking, even though we’re beginning to tire out and our heads are chock full of new facts:
“Say, why do you weigh the trucks when they come in and go out?”
“You know, customs officials monitor us very closely, all the time. That’s only natural, since large trade transactions are going on here.”

Just like at service stations, a government-certified organization regularly monitors the facility’s measurement equipment. If the display says one liter sold, the delivery must correspond to exactly one liter.
Metrology... there’s another word I can use to impress people at my next dinner party.

I even learn a new word:
“metrology” which is
the science of measurement.

As we’ve seen, the facility is humming away and turning out all sorts of substances and finished products. So, what happens to them next?
Well, to start, they’re sold and shipped to different customers. That’s why the facility has a Shipping department, located on the edge of the site (see map).
Since the products come in so many different forms and have so many different uses, there are lots of different ways to ship them: by truck, of course, but also by rail, by barge or even through the pipeline under our feet.

We’re now outside the refinery proper, touring a sort of giant rail yard with Grégory, the Shipping Supervisor.
An expert explainer who loves his work, Grégory gives us lots of information in a “radio personality” voice. We learn about the loading docks, top and bottom loading of tank trucks, driver training, and night arrival and loading of tank cars.

He is full of fascinating anecdotes. We keep him talking, even though we’re beginning to tire out and our heads are chock full of new facts:
“Say, why do you weigh the trucks when they come in and go out?”
“You know, customs officials monitor us very closely, all the time. That’s only natural, since large trade transactions are going on here.”

Just like at service stations, a government-certified organization regularly monitors the facility’s measurement equipment. If the display says one liter sold, the delivery must correspond to exactly one liter.
Metrology... there’s another word I can use to impress people at my next dinner party.

I even learn a new word:
“metrology” which is
the science of measurement.