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Fuelling growth in the petrochemicals sector

The value of the global petrochemicals market, which was estimated to be $472.06 billion in 2011, is expected to reach $791 billion by 2018, equating to a growth in consumption from 436.9 million tonnes in 2011 to 627.5 million tonnes in 2018, according to a recent report by Transparency Market Research. It is expected that growth will be fuelled by increased consumption by end-user industries such as packaging, transportation, plastics and healthcare, and also as a result of government initiatives in countries including India and China to boost production. China is expected to be the fastest-growing market, already accounting for more than 25 per cent of global consumption in 2011.

The petrochemicals sector can be thought of a tiered industry that operates manufacturing and R&D at multiple levels, suggests Ian Peirson, senior solutions consultant at IDBS: ‘Upstream geoscience-based research, for example, is centred on improving operational efficiencies in drilling and recovery, developing new mining technologies and identifying and extracting new types of fuel, such as shale gas. At the midstream, where these kerogen-based fuels are further refined and cracked to generate smaller hydrocarbons, research is centred on process development and optimisation. Further downstream, scientists are probing the uses and manufacture of polymers, plastics and industrial chemical feedstocks, again through process development and optimisation of new catalysts to help the production of new and existing chemical products and the generation of cheaper, alternative chemical intermediates.’

Differing demands, but common factors

The precise demands and requirements for a scientifically enabled R&D informatics platform may differ within those individual tiers of the industry, but common factors remain, suggests Paul Denny-Gouldson, vice president strategic solutions at IDBS. ‘The underlying need is for innovation and the ability to transform R&D into new and improved products, in parallel with maintaining profitability and conformity with regulations.’

‘Catalysis R&D, for example, is a very specialised sphere of chemistry that may be considered outside the realm of mainstream chemistry research but is central to many aspects of petrochemical R&D,’ Peirson continues. Catalysis and industrial chemistry start to interplay as you consider the need to optimise process chemistry to scale up to real-time, continuous flow manufacture. ‘This is where you start to invest significant amounts of money into catalysis research so that you can optimise your reactions. It underpins the development of more efficient processes, as improving product yields by as little as 0.01 per cent can have huge impacts on product value at industrial scales.’

IDBS’ E-WorkBook technology has been designed to maximise the value of both unstructured and structured data emerging from research in the chemicals industry, the company states. ‘Some of our clients may think that they need an ELN simply to capture their IP, but what we can offer with the E-WorkBook platform is an informatics environment that allows you to utilise and put into context every piece of data emerging from research and testing, both in-house and from external sources,’ Denny-Gouldson adds. ‘E-WorkBook can manage structured data from any industry, from any scientific or non-scientific domain, as well as managing sample-centric workflows’.

Pressures drive collaborative models

This is particularly important as the petrochemicals industry is increasingly engaging in collaboration in the R&D space. There is an existing and long history of collaboration in the upstream domains, but the depth and type of collaboration is changing. As this R&D collaborative model becomes more prevalent, the ability to share research and process data becomes ever more important, IDBS believes. ‘The industry is under huge pressures to maximise the discovery, recovery, refining, and uses of fossil fuels and their derivatives because, ultimately, they are all going to run out, Denny-Gouldson points out. ‘We are witnessing a growing trend for joint venture and collaborative work to facilitate maximum utility of these resources. This is one area where E-WorkBook is of particular benefit because it can allow researchers to pull in and utilise data from disparate sources. The enterprise platform integrates into a company’s infrastructure and, critically, has capabilities equivalent to those of a sample-centred LIMS as well. In contrast with LIMS systems that have an ELN embedded, or other stand-alone ELNs, however, E-WorkBook is designed to fit in with the project centric nature of chemicals R&D.’

Increased collaboration is a move that LabWare is also witnessing among its clients, comments Bob Hillhouse, the firm’s director focused on global growth: ‘Petrochemical companies are starting to involve their customers and clients in R&D and product evaluation, so we are moving more into the realms of collaborative computing, and the use of unstructured data and big data. Gradually we will probably see more non-laboratory data, or data from third party laboratories and collaborators, being brought in, which will require enhanced informatics capabilities that can gain value from highly diverse types of information. Mobile computing allows both laboratory and non-laboratory data, and/or data from third-party sub-contractors and collaborators, to be acquired into the central database. LabWare provides a suite of analytic software suitable for laboratory data and we have an open architecture for integrating a wide range of sophisticated analytic modules for highly diverse types of information. Today, LIMS and ELN have a wide range of users well beyond the historical boundaries of the laboratory.’

In an R&D environment, LIMS provides a way of handling structured information about projects and new products, and an ELN provides a way of handling unstructured data, Hillhouse continues: ‘In the old days people tried to apply very inflexible LIMS to an R&D environment, but unlike the manufacturing environment, in R&D you don’t start with the sample, you start with an idea and an experiment, so it’s completely the other way round.’ Essentially, the same technologies are needed for R&D as for manufacturing, but whereas in manufacturing the majority of work is routine and the rest is ad hoc, in R&D there is a high volume of ad hoc and unstructured data, from potentially multiple laboratories and global, which needs to be reported and disseminated to relevant departments and personnel, he points out.

Sophisticated LIMS requirements

On the manufacturing side, LIMS needs to sit alongside process control, ERP and plant maintenance systems as a key component of the informatics infrastructure for any petrochemical plant. ‘Traditionally many LIMS have been procured via engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors as new plants are built,’ Hillhouse states. ‘This still happens but gradually more companies are specifying preferred LIMS vendors because of the benefits accrued from harmonisation of laboratory operations, transfer of system skills and company IT support policies. Whereas once upon a time LIMS requirements in tender documents were less than a page in length, modern plants have sophisticated LIMS requirements and expectations. Over the last 10 years LabWare has developed a ‘process template solution’ that is designed to provide the best possible preconfigured functionality for refinery and petrochemical plants. This allows LIMS installations to be fast tracked as well as delivering well proven and robust software solutions.’

Petrochemical plants operate 24/7 and require mission critical, reliable and robust software systems, Hillhouse continues. Typically the LIMS software will reside on a central server along with other enterprise software, and be deployed to sites via one central database. ‘For example, Reliance in India has deployed LabWare LIMS to all its manufacturing plants throughout India from one centralised database. This includes the Jamnagar refinery, which is the world’s largest oil refinery with an aggregate capacity of 1.24 million barrels per day (bpd). A second server covers all of Reliance’s R&D facilities and incorporates ELN as well as LIMS. Saudi Aramco also operates all of its refineries using LabWare LIMS on one central database. This covers the Ras Tanura refinery in the Persian Gulf, where 90 per cent of Saudi crude is shipped. It is also monitored using LabWare LIMS.’

Pushing the boundaries

On the R&D side, the oil and gas industry is continually pushing boundaries in the drive to find and produce new sources of energy. ‘The LabWare Petrochemical R&D platform offers many tools for the R&D scientist, such as flexible project management capabilities to coordinate and manage all related work in an entire project, comprehensive sample, test, and result management capabilities, including the ability to tailor workflows relative to each type of sample and research discipline,’ Hillhouse claims. ‘The majority of LabWare’s petrochemical customers have LabWare LIMS in both their manufacturing plants and R&D facilities.’

Progressive implementation of informatics

The oil, gas and petrochemicals/chemicals sectors are very progressive both from an R&D and manufacturing perspective when it comes to implementing informatics, particularly with respect to sample handling and analysis, suggests Trish Meek, director of product strategy for the informatics division at Thermo Fisher Scientific. The drive to implement in-line testing and a quality-by-design (QbD) mindset has been integral to the evolution of the petrochemicals industry for much longer than it has for highly regulated industries such as pharma, which are tightly constrained in terms of flexibility to update their processes. ‘If you went to a petrochemical company even 15 years ago you would have seen gas chromatography (GC) plumbed directly into a product line for in-line sampling. People have a perception that the petrochemicals industry is less progressive because it’s an industrial setting and crude oil isn’t considered something that needs a tremendous amount of care in handling – or sophisticated testing. But the opposite is actually the truer picture. Because so many grades of petrochemicals are required to serve so many different customer needs, the oil and gas industry has had to know exactly what is being produced – and at a very specific grade – in order to satisfy downstream customers and maintain margins to satisfy their shareholders.’

The right product to the right customer

Per cent delivery of the right product to the right customer, and at the right time, is critical to the success of any petrochemical company. ‘You need to make sure that as the oil and gas is separated into various components and fractions, components of the right quality are used to make each petrochemical product,’ Trish Meek comments. ‘For the petrochemical industry, many levels of production are required to serve a variety of customer needs. High quality products, priced at the highest margins, are used for refining and fine or specialty chemicals manufacturing, while lower quality petroleum products might be used for chemicals manufacturing related to pesticides or industrial agricultural uses, or even road surfaces.’

Without automation and integrated data management systems it would be nearly impossible to manage the data generated by the extraordinary level of sample testing that a typical oil and gas company conducts on a daily basis, Trish Meek believes. ‘In the oil and gas industry, there is a huge focus on automation, integration of instrumentation and software, and optimised data handling, reporting and accessibility in an industry that will commonly be manufacturing multiple products at multiple global sites.’

Integrated informatics underpin efficiency

Efficiency is therefore key in the industry where margins are incredibly tight and processing and production lines are on stream 24/7. This efficiency is heavily dependent on integrated informatics, which can impact on ultimate product quality and decision making. ‘Laboratories in the oil and gas industry must comply with ISO requirements in general and specifically with ISO 17025, which covers the routine maintenance of instruments so they perform at their optimum levels, training of personnel so that only authorised employees are conducting certain tests and handling certain equipment. All of this requires a high level of automation to accomplish the tasks required. Today’s enterprise-level LIMS, such as SampleManager, have built-in functionality to enable the lab to operate within the ISO framework, and also delivers appropriate reporting to show adherence to the ISO requirements. An oil and gas company will need this documentation to satisfy customers that their processes are delivering the product expected.’ 

The LIMS is also instrumental in helping these multi-site and multi-continent oil and gas companies become as standardised as possible – in their SOPs, their reporting and ultimately consistent output. Thermo Fisher Scientific SampleManager LIMS, for example, enables clients to manage specifications at any of these sites, Trish Meek continues. ‘It is very common within the petrochemical industry for us to have a global server; a data farm where there is a centralised server. Each facility will typically make certain products and there may be, for example, 18 or 20 sites around the world that connect to that single server. SAP manages the process for each of those facilities, and integrates with SampleManager, pulling all data in to a central repository.’

Decreasing turnaround times

Laboratories working in the petrochemical industry require support from a LIMS that is flexible and configurable, comments Steve Yemm, sales director at Core Informatics. ‘The system must be able to adjust to the lab’s changing needs over time, while automating data collection, reporting, and analysis to decrease turnaround times. The Core LIMS has been designed to satisfy these needs, and allows petrochemical labs to meet the high demands placed on it, while monitoring their environmental impact and controlling costs. Core Informatics provides an easily navigable system that increases efficiency in all of a lab’s processes as well as the integrity of its data’.

This Core Platform as a Service (PaaS) approach may be delivered either over the Cloud in Amazon Web Services or installed directly on premise on a customer’s own server hardware. ‘Core LIMS can aid power process laboratories in investigating ways to incorporate alternative fuels into their processes,’ Yemm continues. ‘It is flexible and configurable to adapt to the changing technologies used in energy laboratories. The system is scalable to incorporate all of an organisation’s laboratory processes, and manage projects and workflows across labs, increasing efficiency organisation-wide.’ The Core LIMS automates data collection for results flagging, reduced transcription errors, and the elimination of duplicate data entry.

‘Critically, the platform enables process automation by assigning work to analysts and instrumentation, along with any associated protocols that must be met. This allows analysts to spend their time on more knowledge-intensive activities such as defining the next test to be completed.’ 

Predictive analytics

There is also a big push towards predictive analytics in the chemicals and petrochemicals space, Thermo Fisher’s Trish Meek points out. ‘SampleManager provides a map of the whole facility and sampling points, flagging up potential and early stage problems so that changes can be implemented before production processes or product quality are affected.’ The drive is thus to optimise laboratory processes and overall business. ‘Laboratory data is becoming more and more critical in overall decision-making processes across the company. Petrochemical companies generate numerous olefins and aromatics that are the building blocks for many other compounds, so having a complete record of all the data for each product and derivative provides a high level of confidence in the quality that companies are delivering to their customers. It’s of huge importance for the petrochemicals industry,’ Meek adds.

Delivering a complete solution

Thermo Fisher, earlier this year, built laboratory execution system (LES) and scientific data management functionality onto the SampleManager LIMS platform to further drive efficiency, automation and integration and reduce reliance on paper. By delivering this functionality within the LIMS, Thermo Fisher has offered its customers a complete Informatics solution with the core functionality that is commonly found in separate software.  ‘Now with SampleManager LIMS, all of that functionality is available as part of the core product, eliminating the expense of multiple software investments, the time spent implementing and integrating those diverse products, and streamlining the lab process by giving personnel one user interface for any task or workflow they may need to implement.’ Not only can the LIMS take users step-wise through testing processes, but analytical data can be pulled directly up into the LIMS system from the instruments across the lab or in the field. ‘It’s important to deliver a complete solution, providing a central location for data storage, eliminating paper notebooks and supporting the processes that the scientist, technician or lab manager are undertaking, rather than just supporting functionality’.


The role of LIMS in the world’s largest oil and gas project

The surrounding waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, east of Siberia, hold an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil and natural gas, and Sakhalin Island is home to one of the world’s largest integrated, export-oriented oil and gas projects, Sakhalin-2. The scale of the project, and the complexity of its laboratory operations, was unprecedented, and required Sakhalin Energy, the project’s corporate parent, to build an ultra-modern central laboratory on site.

For the new Sakhalin-2 laboratory, the decision to invest in a LIMS to manage the project’s sampling process was critical. ‘To manage the workload and integrate with the instrumentation, we selected Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS,’ comments Sunil Pandya, head of laboratory for Sakhalin Energy. ‘[It] is a widely used LIMS for the oil and gas industry.’

Implementation of the right LIMS system was critical to Sakhalin, which would ultimately rely on SampleManager to anchor a lab that would provide 24/7 analysis of oil, gas, chemical and wastewater samples for the entire operation, including upstream satellite laboratories. The Sakhalin-2 lab would need to operate as an integrated hub capable of supporting a massive analytical, quality and compliance infrastructure.

Specifically, it would generate analytical reference data for product quality and custody transfer invoicing, calibration of online process analysers, monitoring of plant performance and equipment condition, and environmental monitoring. The lab would also provide expert advice on LNG and crude oil sales purchase agreements and plant troubleshooting, as well as provide ad hoc services to other Sakhalin assets such as pipelines and offshore platforms.

Now fully operational, the Sakhalin-2 lab relies on its LIMS to manage thousands of samples and related processes and procedures. From extraction analyses and the issuance of SOPs and Certificates of Quality to compliance with the rigorous requirements of ISO 17025, the LIMS is a workhorse. ‘Our laboratories have been designed from the ground up to support this site – this project represents the new frontier in oil and gas development and our laboratory needed a LIMS that was proven to be reliable in this environment and dependable for the future of the project,’ Pandya maintains.

To ensure reliability and streamline regulatory compliance, Sakhalin Energy sought to standardise its state-of-the-art lab on a single system. Since doing so, the lab has been able to manage an increasingly sophisticated sampling program capable of supporting aggressive timetables for LNG extraction and delivery across Asia. Today, the fully operational Sakhalin-2 operation maintains world-class safety and reliability. The company recently reported that the facility has been producing LNG at more than 110 per cent of its rated capacity, thanks to its persistent efforts to drive operational excellence. And the operation’s state-of-the-art lab, with LIMS at its centre, continues to play a pivotal role in helping to maintain excellence through a rigorous approach to data collection, management and reporting across its massive enterprise and externally to stakeholders ranging from partners to regulators and international standards bodies.


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