PETROANALYSIS || ARTICLE
Orimulsion seemed to have a bright future
“Orimulsion” was a cocktail of bitumen, water and an emulsifier that could be pumped through unheated pipelines and be burnt in power stations. Plans were that by the end of the twentieth century twenty million metric tons per annum of Orimulsion should be produced and marketed. However, the decision was made to close down operations in 2005. Is now the time for Orimulsion to be revived for domestic power generation in Venezuela?
Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) made a two-decade effort to develop and commercialize Orimulsion – a mixture of bitumen from the Orinoco Oil Belt, water, and an emulsifier that would compete price-wise with coal for power generation. Operations were eventually terminated. The reasons behind the decision was at the time reported to be based on economics: the corporation had decided that it could make larger profits by selling fuel oil than Orimulsion; it was competing with fuel oil in power stations and so there would be an impact on the world oil price; and additionally the rush into the Orinoco Belt was about to generate a major contradiction in Venezuelan oil policy since it was not compatible with revenue and price objectives. (1)
This being said, during the period of its life there had been positive reactions to Orimulsion as a boiler fuel in the international arena; but there had also been negative reactions, specifically with respect to its cleanliness. Here follows a brief outline of the commercialization and use of Orimulsion in various countries. (2) Trading activities were performed through Bitor as well as through Bitor America Corporation, Florida; Bitor Europe, London; and MC Bitor, Tokyo. Exports in 1994 were two million five hundred thousand tons, 28% up over 1993.
In Latin America, advances were made in the negotiations for supplying Orimulsion to the Central Electrica San Nicolás in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Brazil was prepared to offer a preferential customs tariff for Orimulsion; Chile was interested in a supply contract for a 120 MW plant in Calderas, in the north-central part of the country, where plans were to use Orimulsion in diesel engines.
Bitor America made the first shipment of Orimulsion to the New Brunswick Power Corporation (NBP) of Canada under the long-term contract signed in 1990 to supply up to 800,000 tons per annum; the conversion of NBP’s 310 MW plant in Dalhousie to Orimulsion was completed with burning starting in September; a 20-year contract with Florida Power and Light (FPL) was signed to supply the 1580 MW Manatee plant – annual requirements would be 4,000,000 tons, and a contract was signed with Pure Air (a partnership of Air Products and Chemicals and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) for the construction and operation of a flue gas desulphurization plant for the two 790 MW plant units at Manatee.
The European affiliate of Bitor, the London-based Bitor Energy PLC (BEC), had been promoting, with Bitor, the participation of European companies in generation, flue gas cleaning, and ash recycling projects. Significant progress was made in optimizing the technology for recovering vanadium, nickel, and magnesium from Orimulsion ashes. BEC had also been working closely together in this with REAKT (British) and STRATCOR (North American) to set up a joint venture to process between 6,000 tons and 10,000 tons of Orimulsion ashes per annum.
During the year 1,450,000 tons of Orimulsion were delivered to Europe, and secured sales for 1995 of 2,800,000 tons. Two industrial trials in cement kilns in Italy and Germany were successfully completed: one at the UNICEM Cadola cement plant, consuming 250 tons of Orimulsion, and the other at Phoenix’s Beckum cement plant consuming 840 tons. Both trials confirmed that Orimulsion could be used as an alternative fuel for producing cement
Two single burner trials were completed during the year: one to evaluate the performance of the low NOx burners installed in the SK Power Asnaes 700 MW unit near Kalundborg, Denmark, and the other in the NEFO 300 MW plant of Elsam. Near year-end Bitor Europe (BEL) signed a contract with SK Power for the Asnaes 700 MW unit – this was in a country where very strict environmental legislation is applicable. A full boiler trial was initiated at CPPE’s Setubal Unit 4, Portugal, for which approximately 93,000 tons of Orimulsion were delivered in accordance with the permanent supply agreement. Also during 1994, feasibility studies were completed for five sites and support was given to National Power, UK, for the bid specification for the conversion of the 2000 MW Pembroke plant and in the preparation of the corresponding environmental impact study.
In Asia, the main accomplishment was the signing of a contract with China North Industries Corporation for the marketing and supply of Orimulsion – 1,200,000 tons were negotiated to be supplied; an agreement was signed with the Ssangyong Corporation for the promotion of Orimulsion in that country; and India was also interested in quantifying the domestic market potential of Orimulsion.
In Thailand, Orimulsion was accepted as a base fuel together with natural gas and coal by that country’s Electricity Generating Authority.
MC Bitor, an equal share partnership between Bitor and Mitsubishi Corporation, exported to its Japanese customers Kashima Kita Electric Power Corporation, Mitsubishi Kasei Corporation and Kansai Electricity Power Company approximately 700,000 tons of Orimulsion. Kashima Kita consumed approximately 355,000 tons in 1994, Mitsubishi Kasei 215,000 tons, and Kansai 120,000 tons. Also, Hokkaido Electric Power company began construction of a new 350 MW capacity plant planned to consume approximately 200,000 tons of Orimulsion per annum, to be burned alternately with heavy fuel oil starting in 1996.
In the Philippines, the state owned National Power Corporation evaluated the usage of Orimulsion as a base fuel in plants whose consolidated power generating capacity is approximately 1,700 MW.
In Malaysia, the state owned Tenaga Nasional Berhad utility undertook feasibility studies for the use of Orimulsion in its power plants of approximately 900 MW, either new ones or those under consideration for conversion.
Environment: both bad and good
However, by late-1997 there were major setbacks in Great Britain and the United States: Bitor suffered in September when two British power stations, Pembroke and Richborough, failed to renew their contracts for Orimulsion. The contracts involved 1.5 million tons of Orimulsion per year that accounted for US$50 million in revenues.
That same month, Bitor was dealt another major blow when a Florida state regulating committee decided to reject a deal with Florida Power and Light to use Orimulsion in its Manatee power plant, for the second time in as many years.
Both the cancellation of the British contracts and the decision by the Florida were ultimately prompted by environmental concerns raised by the use of Orimulsion. It came under harsh criticism from environmentalists who called it “the world’s filthiest fuel”. Opponents to Orimulsion said that the fuel emitted a fine dust that was heavily laden with heavy metals that could affect crops and even penetrate into the blood stream. Bitor officials admitted that Orimulsion contained high levels of some toxic substances, but they also said that power plants could significantly cut emissions by installing high-tech filters.
Other clients downplayed the polluting effects of Orimulsion. For example, in Japan, a nation which is known to have very strict environmental regulations, there were three power plants using Orimulsion, and another one was scheduled to start operating by the end of the year.
Kashima Kita, the first company to use Orimulsion in Japan, said it converted its plant to use the Venezuelan fuel in 1991 and so far it had shown optimum performance. Moreover, in the light of these results, the company decided to build another Orimulsion-fuelled plant, planned to become Japan’s largest power facility with capacity to generate 4,400 megawatts. (3)
In addition, another positive note was that PowerSeraya, Singapore, said its alternative fuel, Orimulsion, put it in a position to withstand pricing and supply shocks, which would become more important as the prices of traditional fossil fuels remained high and volatile. “Fuel is about 70 per cent of our cost structure, so having alternatives helps us mitigate the risk of fuel supply disruption,” said the company, “It also helps us move away from reliance on natural gas and conventional oil.” PowerSeraya has upgraded its three units of 250MW steam plants and invested more than $100 million in emission control equipment which reduces the emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide by 95 per cent and particulate matter by 97 per cent. The company added that the Orimulsion generation unit helps reduces overall emissions in the power-generation operation by half.
It hoped to have three units of 250MW steam plants operated by Orimulsion by year-end, adding to its current capacity of six units of 250MW steam plants that run on conventional fuel oil and two units of 370MW combined cycle plants which run on natural gas. “Orimulsion as an alternative can produce electricity at the same price as the current cheapest way,” added the company. (4)
It seems to be that in international terms Orimulsion was by no means a failure within the context of power generation, even with its emissions problems. So one may perhaps now consider the following: Would it be a viable option to revive Orimulsion – but not for export… for the generation of electricity for the Venezuelan domestic market?
1. “Venezuelan oil politics at the crossroads”, Bernard Mommer, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, March 2001.
2. Bitor 1994 Annual report, PDVSA Contact No.43, Rippet Jan-Feb. 1992..
3. “Orimulsion fighting setbacks”, Enfoque Petrolero, October 1997
4. Business Times, 12th April 2005.