Bitumens have been extensively used for years in road paving, roofing and industrial applications, making them perceived as commodity materials by most stakeholders.
However, bitumen production has changed significantly over the past decades. Refining processes have adapted to this new context as well as to changes in fuel demand, technical progress and economic pressures. This constantly changing context not only has made bitumen a specialty product for oil companies but an even more complex material with chemical composition and properties dependent on the crude oil source and process.
During our research and investigations we found already in the year 2012 that Shell Bitumen believes (as we do) that challenges impact the road construction industry in a number of ways:
Demand: More roads will be needed, cities will require further mobility, infrastructure budgets will remain constrained and prices may become increasingly volatile.
Conventional oil supply: Due to a variety of technological and market factors, refinery to obtain. Crude oil inputs to refineries may become more variable with the decline of conventional feedstocks, thus impacting product quality.
Climate stress: Governments globally can be expected over time to increase regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to impacting large emitters such as the refineries that produce road bitumen, the fossil fuels used by road contractors are also likely to be subject to some form of carbon tax.
(Source: www.shell.com, 21.05.2012)
Two years later we have found and excellent article of Jean Pascal Planche, which neatly summarised the developments in our industry.
Bitumens have been extensively used for years in road paving, making them perceived as commodity materials by most road stakeholders. However, bitumen production has changed significantly over the past two decades. Refining processes have adapted to this new context as well as to changes in fuel demand. This evolving context not only has made asphalt/bitumen a specialty product for oil companies but an even more complex material with chemical composition and properties more dependent on the crude oil source and process.
Article, July 2014 – more information about Jean-Pascale Planche, University of Wyoming, Laramie Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering, PhD
IMO 2020 regulations and the Effect on Bitumen Quality
The new sulphur limits of the IMO 2020 regulation are probably the most drastic and radical change which has been imposed on the global refining industry of all times. The ultimate effect of the implementation of new IMO 2020 regulations on the use of fuel oil contain sulfur on the quality of bitumen is currently unknown.
What are the IMO regulations?
In 2018 Geoff Rowe elaborated in an article about the IMO regulations:
IMO (International Maritime Organization) has been introducing rules to lower the use of high sulfur fuel oils (bunker fuel) over the past years. Annex VI to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention) was adopted in 1997, to address air pollution from shipping. The current global limit for Sulphur content of ships’ fuel oil has been 3.50% m/m (mass by mass). The new global limit is 0.50% m/m apply since 1 January 2020.
Regulation 14 - Sulphur Oxides (SOx) and Particulate Matter
The Sulphur content of any fuel oil used on board ships shall not exceed the following limits:
- 4.50% m/m prior to 1 January 2012;
- 3.50% m/m on and after 1 January 2012; and
- 0.50% m/m on and after 1 January 2020.
IMO has been working to reduce harmful impacts of shipping on the environment since the 1960s.
Potential changes to bitumen
Crudes are classified as sour or sweet according to Sulphur content. Major locations where sweet crude is found include the Appalachian Basin in Eastern North America, Western Texas, the Bakken Formation of North Dakota and Saskatchewan, the North Sea of Europe, North Africa, Australia, and the Far East including Indonesia. Sour crude is more common in the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, South America, and Canada. Crude produced by OPEC Member Nations also tends to be relatively sour. Vacuum residual yield and sulfur content will cause larger crude price differentials. This will create crude slate optimization opportunities for almost all refineries and hence impact bitumen quantities and qualities.
Geoffrey Rowe, Worldwide Asphalt and Pavement Technology Expert
Dr. Rowe is the president and CEO of Abatech Inc which conducted pavement engineering projects around the world from it’s headquarter location in Pennsylvania, USA. Dr. Rowe leads several research efforts in rheology and the fracture of asphalt with funding from industry and government sources. In addition, Dr. Rowe currently heads an ASTM Sub-committee developing standards for forensic engineering.
Dr. Rowe is a licensed Professional Engineer in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida. In addition, he is a Chartered Materials Engineer in the United Kingdom.
And now the Covid-19 Pandemic
National lockdowns across the world to contain the spread of Covid-19 are having a serious impact on global refinery sector. Stringent travel restrictions have wiped out the market for transportation fuel, long storage durations are leading to a deterioration of products such as gasoline and jet fuel and with stocks piling up and refiners are witnessing increased inventory costs. Such circumstances have forced the refinery sector to cut the production rate despite falling crude prices. Yet again impacting bitumen quantity and quality.