April 2020

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Editorial Comment: Ultra-low-sulfur fuels: The evolution of clean fuels production

One of the most significant trends affecting the refining industry over the past 30 yr is the drive toward clean fuels production.

Nichols, Lee, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

One of the most significant trends affecting the refining industry over the past 30 yr is the drive toward clean fuels production. A major aspect of “clean fuels” focuses on mitigating pollutants—carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter—from vehicle exhaust.

Many refiners around the world have adopted European standards for fuel quality (Euro 4, Euro 5 and Euro 6), as Europe has been the frontrunner on regulations for low-sulfur, “clean” transportation fuels. This includes reducing sulfur limits—measured in parts per million (ppm)—in transportation fuels. The refining industry has invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the past 30 yr to reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.

These investments have reduced sulfur levels in transportation fuels from 2,000 ppm (prior to Euro 2) in 1993 to less than 10 ppm (Euro 5 and Euro 6) at present; and the industry is still building. According to OPEC’s World Oil Outlook 2019 and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) Oil 2020 reports, global desulfurization capacity is forecast to increase substantially by the mid-2020s. The IEA forecast global desulfurization capacity to surpass 4 MMbpd by 2025, while OPEC forecast nearly 6 MMbpd of new capacity to start operations within the same time period (FIG. 1).

FIG. 1. Global desulfurization capacity additions (MMbpd), 2019–2025. Source: IEA, OPEC.

Most countries use the European standard to measure sulfur in fuels, but use different names to describe them. These ultra-low-sulfur (ULS) fuels include Bharat Stage 6 (BS-6) in India, National 5 and Beijing 6 in China, Tier 3 in the U.S. and AFRI 4 in parts of Africa, among others.

The push for lower-sulfur transportation fuels has also moved into the global shipping sector, with the International Maritime Organization’s global sulfur cap regulation going into effect this year.

Dozens of nations around the world are increasing the use of biofuels in their total fuel consumption. This concerted effort will help these nations mitigate oil imports, prop up agriculture industries (palm oil, corn for ethanol, etc.) and/or reduce emissions. HP

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