Petroleum refining begins with the distillation, or fractionation, of crude oils into separate hydrocarbon groups. The resultant products are directly related to the characteristics of the crude oil being processed. Most of these products of distillation are further converted into more useable products by changing their physical and molecular structures through cracking, reforming and other conversion processes. These products are subsequently subjected to various treatment and separation processes, such as extraction, hydrotreating and sweetening, in order to produce finished products. Whereas the simplest refineries are usually limited to atmospheric and vacuum distillation, integrated refineries incorporate fractionation, conversion, treatment and blending with lubricant, heavy fuels and asphalt manufacturing; they may also include petrochemical processing.
The first refinery, which opened in 1861, produced kerosene by simple atmospheric distillation. Its by-products included tar and naphtha. It was soon discovered that high-quality lubricating oils could be produced by distilling petroleum under vacuum. However, for the next 30 years, kerosene was the product consumers wanted most. The two most significant events which changed this situation were:
the invention of the electric light, which decreased the demand for kerosene
the invention of the internal-combustion engine, which created a demand for diesel fuel and gasoline.
With the advent of mass production and the First World War, the number of gasoline-powered vehicles increased dramatically, and the demand for gasoline grew accordingly. However, only a certain amount of gasoline could be obtained from crude oil through atmospheric and vacuum distillation processes. The first thermal cracking process was developed in 1913. Thermal cracking subjected heavy fuels to both pressure and intense heat, physically breaking their large molecules into smaller ones, producing additional gasoline and distillate fuels. A sophisticated form of thermal cracking, visbreaking, was developed in the late 1930s to produce more desirable and valuable products.
As higher-compression gasoline engines were developed, there was a demand for higher-octane gasoline with better anti-knock characteristics. The introduction of catalytic cracking and poly- merization processes in the mid- to late 1930s met this demand by providing improved gasoline yields and higher octane numbers. Alkylation, another catalytic process, was developed in the early 1940s to produce more high-octane aviation gasoline and petrochemical feedstocks, the starting materials, for explosives and synthetic rubber. Subsequently, catalytic isomerization was developed to convert hydrocarbons to produce increased quantities of alkylation feedstocks.
Following the Second World War, various reforming processes were introduced which improved gasoline quality and yield, and produced higher-quality products. Some of these involved the use of catalysts and/or hydrogen to change molecules and remove sulphur. Improved catalysts, and process methods such as hydrocracking and reforming, were developed throughout the 1960s to increase gasoline yields and improve anti-knock characteristics. These catalytic processes also produced molecules with a double bond (alkenes), forming the basis of the modern petrochemical industry.
The numbers and types of different processes used in modern refineries depend primarily on the nature of the crude feedstock and finished product requirements. Processes are also affected by economic factors including crude costs, product values, availability of utilities and transportation.