Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Crude Science Behind Dormant

A crude oil refinery plays an important part in my novel, Dormant.

Oil Refinery
Mention crude oil refining and most of us picture a sprawling industrial complex with miles of piping. Taken a step further, our vague knowledge probably hints at a process that requires intense heat. This was my level of understanding, until I conceived an idea for Dormant that required more research.

The most common method used in crude oil refining is fractional distillation. In this case, fractions are the component parts of crude oil. The crude is passed through a furnace and then into a fractional distillation column where the heat allows the hydrocarbons to separate. The lightest products with the lowest boiling point rise to the top and the heaviest with the highest boiling point sink to the bottom of the column. That means that lighter hydrocarbons, like gas, exit from the top of the column while heaver ones like lubricating oil, paraffin wax, and asphalt exit at the bottom. Further processing in the form of catalytic cracking is applied to intermediate products, such as gasoils, to create the fuels that are blended to form gasoline. This refining method is effective, but there are numerous byproducts that cause safety and environmental concerns.

PetroBeam's Cold Cracking Column
An new method of crude oil refining is called cold cracking. Cold cracking is done at room temperature. It uses beams of high-energy electrons (I imagine a Star Trek phazer—zap, zap) to transform the thick parts of crude oil into petroleum products, e.g. oils and gasoline, thin enough to pump through a pipeline. One of the benefits of cold cracking, over the traditional fractional distillation method, is that a lot of oil fields have oil that is too thick to pump. Current methods of thinning these deposits are very expensive.

The reason that cold cracking is not more widely used is because of radiation’s propensity to make things worse. Hydrocarbons are long chains of molecules—the longer the chain, the more viscous. Sometimes the chains broken by the electron beams cross-link to a neighbor, which leads to a stagnant mess of interconnected chains. The process is actually used to toughen tires and a certain kind of plastic shrink-wrapping. There is no such thing as scientific failure; apparent failure often creates an opportunity that simply requires re-working into an application different from what was originally intended.

The problem of cross-linking has been solved since 2005. Researchers, working for a company called PetroBeam, created a proprietary process that can be used in oil refineries to turn heavy fuel oils into things like gasoline and diesel.

Enough nerd speak. I applaud you if it you read this far. I promise that Dormant does not include all of the above technical details, but my research did help drive the plot.

The Science Behind Dormant

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