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Rotterdam refinery harnesses technology and opportunity

New unit improves capabilities, creates new marketing channels and positions the Dutch plant for the future.

ExxonMobil is advancing construction of a more than $1 billion hydrocracker expansion at its 190,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Rotterdam, Netherlands. To underline the significance of this project to the Dutch economy, Minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp broke ground on the project in June 2016. The new unit is on track for startup in late 2018 and for shipping product in early 2019.

Rotterdam refinery hydrocracker expansion project members Harro van de Rhee and Rolando Garcia
Photo — A “one team, one goal” approach is bringing about the safe, on-time completion of the hydrocracker expansion, according to Harro van de Rhee, refinery manager (right) and Rolando Garcia, project executive

The project is significant because it will increase the plant’s ability to produce ultra-low sulfur diesel. It will also produce ExxonMobil EHC™ Group II base stocks on a large scale for the first time in Europe. This high-quality base stock is in demand in the lubricants industry, and helps reduce emissions and improve fuel economy and performance, among other benefits.

The Rotterdam activity is part of the company’s focused investment to strengthen the global supply of high-quality base stocks, and complements other investments at its integrated facilities in Jurong (Singapore) and Baytown (United States).

“The European refining sector is a mature but highly competitive business,” says Harro van de Rhee, Rotterdam refinery manager. “This project will enable us to upgrade lower-margin products to higher-value products. But in addition to greater operational flexibility, the hydrocracker also brings energy-efficiency gains. We are already one of the most energy-efficient plants in Europe. With this new unit and the application of our proprietary technology, we will further boost our energy efficiency by 5 percent.”

Van de Rhee started his career at the Rotterdam refinery and has worked within refinery and chemical businesses in Europe and North America during his 26 years with ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil has a long history of integrated operations in the area, and the refinery, a lubes blending plant and four chemical facilities are all located within the Port of Rotterdam. The refinery is ideally situated for the expansion with its deepwater access and proximity to European markets.

“It makes a great deal of business sense to situate the expanded hydrocracker here in Rotterdam, and we are very proud of the commitment the company has made to our operations,” van de Rhee says.

Milestones

Meanwhile, the site is safely buzzing with activity.

“We’ve already safely reached a number of major milestones,” says Rolando Garcia, project executive for the Rotterdam hydrocracker. “Our heavy lifts are in place, including the positioning of three large reactors totaling 2,000 tons and a 400-ton, 160-foot-tall vacuum tower. We were also able to optimize cost, schedule and safety by pre-assembling pipe racks in Spain and transporting them to the construction site. A total of 19 modules are now stacked and in place, and the work is now transitioning to erection of steel and piping.”

A massive crane lifts a 400-ton, 160-foot vacuum tower into place as part of the Rotterdam hydrocracker expansion project
Photo — A massive crane lifts a 400-ton, 160-foot vacuum tower into place as part of the Rotterdam hydrocracker expansion project

Everything about this project is big. The foundations for the unit span 20,000 cubic yards – the equivalent of filling the size of an American football field 12 feet deep with concrete. There are 3,500 tons of structural steel, which equals the weight of eight fully loaded 747 jetliners. Piping alone stretches more than 50 miles.

Garcia, who marks his 30th anniversary with ExxonMobil this year, believes that one of the biggest accomplishments of the project thus far is how the refinery is building a culture to integrate and embrace the lubes business and operation.

“There is a lot of collaboration on this project, ranging from refining and supply, research and engineering, and fuels and lubes in order to begin base stock production and sales. We knew that we had to create a greater awareness of what lubes production and sales involve. We’re doing that by setting up a series of technical sessions and presentations by senior ExxonMobil marketing managers, as well as conducting a number of ‘information fairs’ with displays to introduce, prepare and ultimately make the whole organization ready for the new lubes operation here.”

Van de Rhee emphasizes the importance of the close working relationship and alignment of the project construction team and the refining staff. This “one team, one goal” approach is working toward the safe, on-time completion of the hydrocracker project and also the seamless integration of the new lubes value chain into the overall Rotterdam operation.

“We know that our ultimate success, to a great extent, will be defined by how successful we’ve been at creating and fostering alignment between our various groups,” van de Rhee says “I’m pleased to say that I believe that we are accomplishing this goal, and there is a building excitement that you can feel here as we work together to prepare for the many new opportunities the project will open for us. This is preparing us for the future.”

Collaborating for success

Sylvie Houry has worked for ExxonMobil for 27 years, primarily in marketing positions in France, Italy and Belgium. For the past two years, she has been the business venture manager for the Rotterdam hydrocracker project.

“This will make us the first large-scale producer of Group II base stocks in Europe,” Houry says. “These products are designed to meet evolving industry requirements such as new standards on engine lubricating oils to achieve better mileage and lower emissions. EHC™ products provide enhanced capabilities in a wide range of engine and industrial applications and have the potential to reduce supply-chain complexity. Our customers will be assured of worldwide supply availability, whether it’s in the United States, Asia-Pacific or Europe.

“What's exciting for me about this project is working with so many different functions – crude supply, refining, blending, chemicals, the project team, research, marketing and, of course, our customers – to collaborate on the startup of this new endeavor. The communication and collaboration everyone has established are going to make this project a great success.”

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