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Refining the oil processes

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The petrochemical industry is big, efficient and never sleeps. Siân Harris finds out what role informatics plays in keeping this industry running

From the fuel that runs our cars and heats our homes, to plastics and the starting materials of many other things we rely on every day, the petrochemical industry plays a big part in our lives.

Refining petrochemicals is done on a large scale – around the world there are only about 600 refineries to serve all our petrochemical needs – and efficiency is key. Considerable care is taken to ensure that products meet customer requirements without being over-refined. After all, each purification step adds cost to the process and the resulting products may well be broken down and expelled from a car exhaust pipe within a week of manufacture.

Such requirements for efficiency have driven refineries towards greater automation. Thousands of samples are taken and analysed for, for example, viscosity and octane levels. With analyses being straightforward, routine and high volume there has been a trend away from employing analytical chemists for these tasks. Instead, analysis is typically done by non-specialist staff working shifts to ensure 24/7 activity at the sites. This means that they need to be able to come in and take over the routine sample collection and analysis from where their colleagues left off.

As with many other industries, such a trend towards lower-skilled people doing analyses is assisted by informatics. ‘A lot of it is batch-driven and uncomplicated so there is a drive to make it as simple and as fast as possible. Laboratories in these businesses are not profit-generating but cost-generating so they want to make the costs as low as possible,’ comments PerkinElmer’s VP of marketing for informatics, Clive Higgins.

Jay Ross, the product manager who handles petrochemical clients at Starlims, agrees: ‘Even though the petrochemical industry is doing very well in the market, the money spent on QA/QC is very low. The difference between a petrochemical refinery and, for example, an environmental lab, is that the process never ends. Once they start pumping they never really stop.’

A LIMS helps by managing all the sample points, the work needed and the scheduling of samples. This makes it easier for any operator to see what needs to be done and so helps reduce the potential for errors and confusion. The use of a LIMS also helps petrochemical companies review test results and produce certificates, which is part of the process of selecting which products go to which customers. The LIMS tracks which vessel each product has gone into and their journey to customers.

As John Gabathuler, director, industrial and environmental at Labware notes: ‘The need to streamline operations and optimise costs across manufacturing, supply chain and research are coupled with increased quality requirements and compliance to international standards.’ 

Management for 
all seasons

There are other considerations in this industry that the LIMS can help with. For example, as Ross of Starlims observes, ‘In some places you are not supposed to manufacture certain products in certain seasons, for example in some southern US states there are restrictions on which months you are allowed to manufacture 87-octane gasoline because of the fumes. You need tools in your LIMS to manage this.’

And there are other seasonal variations, as Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Colin Thurston, points out with the example that jet fuel has different specifications in summer and winter. He also notes the increasing need for environmental monitoring by petrochemical companies. For example, with fracking there is the requirement to test the surrounding area for contamination of ground water and soil.

In addition, Thurston says, the characteristics of the products themselves can change over time so need to be monitored and the equipment used can also change. Because in-situ equipment is in a harsh environment it is prone to failure and this can impact test results. Thurston notes the importance of taking samples off those instruments and measuring them against those done in lab.

‘Historically, process and lab data was disconnected,’ he says. ‘However, today all instruments are directly connected into the LIMS. All testing is pre-assigned and scheduled onto the machine itself. There is also scheduled maintenance of the instruments.’

Controlling it all with the LIMS helps to spot and resolve any differences. ‘Two instruments that do the same job, even from the same manufacturer, may not have same output format and no two laboratories or plants have exactly identical systems. We have to take in slight or very big differentiation,’ says Thurston. 

Integration and standardisation

Integration between the different pieces of the informatics puzzle is a key theme for Graham Shelver, CompassCDS key account manager at Bruker Chemical and Applied Markets, which, amongst other things, makes chromatography data systems (CDS). He notes that a CDS needs to be able to interact with the production environment, the analytical lab, the management/office environment and the IT department. It also needs to be able to network and control analytical instruments and interact with supervisory control and data acquisition systems to provide results data output in specific formats that can be interpreted and used as part of production control feedback loops. In addition, communication with the LIMS and data storage systems is required.

‘With CDS, networking has made a big difference. Instruments are now all networked, which means they can run from any computer. Our CDS can also control other vendor systems.’

This is important, he says, because, companies purchase hardware from different vendors but typically use the same software across a site.

Such trends have been eased by standardisation in computing. In the last few years there has been a convergence of software, languages and protocols. ‘There is still a long way to go but XML made a big difference,’ Shelver says. ‘And the industry has essentially standardised on Windows, which means that the industry conforms with Windows upgrades.

‘Five or 10 years ago many intermediate steps would have been needed but now our software can very easily talk to a LIMS. Multiple different LIMS systems have to all work with all software. Even with different LIMS there are common ways of communicating,’ he adds.

There are further developments on the horizon when it comes to computing too: ‘We regularly get requests for web interfaces, cloud interfaces, smartphone interfaces and virtualisation, and each one of these is in our business plan,’ comments Shelver.

However, some of these, which are well established in other areas of computing, have had surprisingly low adoption in laboratory informatics. ‘Slow adoption of web interfaces in this industry is really because of security. Large organisations are reluctant to put access to analytical data on the web, especially pharmaceutical companies. In the petrochemical industry, things have also been slowed down because the industry is about 10 years behind on IT technology. It’s a conservative industry; they don’t like spending money,’ says Shelver, who adds that Bruker will be offering a web option but customers do not have to take it.

Similar issues cloud the promise of cloud computing. ‘The problem with the cloud is convincing users to allow us to put their data on third-party servers. Customers want to store data but also to process it and make it secure,’ he explains, predicting that cloud computing will be most beneficial to smaller labs. But there are other challenges with the cloud too. It requires a monthly fee – although this removes the overhead from companies of having to worry about their IT.

Shelver notes that many LIMS vendors are using the cloud already or planning to. ‘LIMS with cloud is easier than analytical system with cloud. LIMS is essentially instructions and is relatively simple.’

But, he says that CDS are more complicated because of the need to control instruments 24/7 and keep analysing results. ‘We can’t afford for the cloud to go down. We need to make sure that the control of the system doesn’t break. The industry requires and demands 99.999999 per cent up time.’ 

Centralising informatics

Cloud computing is one aspect that is emerging as businesses move towards more centralised informatics systems. ‘The industry is really pushing towards more centralised solutions,’ says Ross of Starlims, who notes that the information that users see within Starlims is controlled by their role. ‘An analyst sees the things they work on, while a senior manager can see the performance overview of perhaps five sites. The system is geared towards filtering information,’ he says. ‘The petrochemical and refinery industry is very, very efficient. Having individual LIMS deployed at each site is labour intensive and adds overheads.

‘In the past, many multi-site companies were happy to choose their LIMS on a refinery-by-refinery basis. Now we are seeing consolidation to standardise across companies. This brings efficiency, which is a key performance indicator,’ Ross adds. ‘Another aspect of this is an increase in statistical process control. In the refining industry it is about competitive advantage. If you can identify problems sooner you can reduce errors and save money.’

John Gabathuler of Labware agrees: ‘The centralisation and consolidation of informatics systems is a continuing trend that provides many benefits to the petrochemical organisation in both manufacturing and research. Labware provides an enterprise laboratory platform that enables the adoption of a single integrated and scalable LIMS, ELN and instrument integration platform that facilitates the overall harmonisation and consolidation of common processes, information delivery and systems.’

However, there can be some downsides of centralising LIMS, according to Baytek International. The company notes that the process of moving to the same LIMS across a whole company can be more expensive than expected, pointing to the ‘unique personality’ of each refinery, as well as differences caused by factors such as crude source, geography, regional regulation and plant engineering.

‘If a completely centralised LIMS is forced down on all the refineries, a continual and ongoing cost of process inefficiency will be incurred by every refinery because ,while fit for the purposes of the corporation, the LIMS is not fit for the individual purposes of each refinery,’ says the company. Similarly, it points to challenges of removing this integration if a company with a consolidated LIMS sells a refinery to a competitor.

Instead of integrating LIMS across a company, Baytek recommends maintaining the autonomy of the individual lab systems while at the same time providing a corporate view of the data across the enterprise. Baytek’s VortalBliss LIMS enterprise architecture enables this approach, says the company. 

Beyond LIMS

Meanwhile, the solution may not be a LIMS at all, according to PerkinElmer. Following a number of acquisitions over the past couple of years, the company has a new platform, Ensemble, which includes capabilities of both LIMS and ELN.

‘We have a laboratory execution system (LES),’ explains Dale Seabrooke, QA/QC product manager at PerkinElmer. ‘We’re seeing that customers have made big investments in SAP enterprise software so want this to do some of their LIMS functions. We do LES to integrate with SAP. Everyone’s IT departments want to consolidate on fewer technologies. LIMS are very passive and in a lot of cases we see the LES handling what the LIMS has done in the past,’ he says. ‘Many organisations will want to have a LIMS and that’s still a very important part of our portfolio, but we are seeing the adoption rate of LES going up.’

Whichever approach petrochemical companies take to their data and processes, there’s no denying the global nature of the industry and this has an impact. ‘There is a much higher demand in China than other markets and we are seeing significant moves of production capacity,’ notes Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific, who adds that Latin America is similar.

Such moves bring in the challenges of language support. ‘Our systems were originally conceived in English only. In the past seven or eight years, we’ve added the capability to offer multilingual support and allow customers to input in other languages,’ he says.

However, the translation and production costs of this are high and there are questions about how much needs to be translated and whether this should be just the interface or the underlying data too. The issues get more complicated with global businesses where people might want to input in different character sets, such as Arabic and Roman.

Fortunately, Thurston estimates that around 90 per cent of the data entered into a LIMS or similar system is numerical based, which does not pose the same challenge, but defining the collected information is much more textual.

The petrochemical industry’s drive towards efficiency seems set to continue as the industry looks to new sources of oil and other fuels, as well as new markets. And the informatics industry plans to be right alongside it.

David Breach, laboratory manager at Intertek Farnborough, Fuels and Lubricants Centre, UK, reveals what his lab demands of its LIMS

Intertek Farnborough is an independent service provider providing fuels and lubricants testing and consultancy for commercial and military operators. Our laboratories test a wide range of products, such as aviation jet fuel, oils, lubricants, greases and hydraulic fluids. We perform a large number of different test methods.

This means that one of our biggest challenges is the very diverse range of requirements placed on our LIMS, from simple numerical results through to complex calculations, storage of spectra and image files. A flexible and configurable LIMS has always been a key requirement for our business, since this allows us to meet the needs of our customers while minimising the effort required for system configuration.

One of our key requirements [of our LIMS] is the ability to provide trended results for our customers, by comparing the current results against those for previous samples that we have tested. This allows us to make judgements on the health of their systems and give customers guidance on maintenance actions that they might need to take. Our LIMS is used for all aspects of this process – trending the data, highlighting unusually-high results, assigning comments based on the values observed, and giving the customer a simple ‘traffic light’ warning system for the health of their samples.

Our laboratories are ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accredited, with LIMS playing an important part in ensuring that we can meet the required quality standards. Calibration information and check samples are recorded on LIMS, with this data also being used to demonstrate the long-term stability of our instruments. Instruments that fail calibration can be easily identified.

We make use of result calculations within LIMS wherever possible, minimising the use of stand-alone spreadsheets and other uncontrolled data so that we can ensure the integrity of our results. As a fully auditable system, our LIMS ensures that we can quickly and easily demonstrate who has been involved in any aspect of the sample testing, which is a key requirement of our quality system.

We use the Labware Labstation module to directly import raw data files from several instruments in our laboratory. This has considerably increased productivity and reduced transcription errors compared to manual entry methods. We also perform error checking and automatically log calibration samples, which assists significantly in ensuring the quality of data is maintained. Our current integration is mainly with ICP instruments, but we will be expanding this to GC and FT-IR data shortly.

We are increasingly seeing a movement towards customers needing direct access to 
their data so that they can look up results or pick data to trend themselves. Therefore in the future we will move towards having a publically accessible WebLIMS front end to our system, which will allow customers to generate their own trending information.