Crude oil often contains water, inorganic salts, suspended solids, and water-soluble trace metals. As a first step in the refining process, to reduce corrosion, plugging, and fouling of equipment and to prevent poisoning the catalysts in processing units, these contaminants must be removed by desalting (dehydration).

The two most typical methods of crude-oil desalting, chemical and electrostatic separation, use hot water as the extraction agent. In chemical desalting, water and chemical surfactant (demulsifiers) are added to the crude, heated so that salts and other impurities dissolve into the water or attach to the water, and then held in a tank where they settle out. Electrical desalting is the application of high-voltage electrostatic charges to concentrate suspended water globules in the bottom of the settling tank. Surfactants are added only when the crude has a large amount of suspended solids. Both methods of desalting are continuous. A third and less-common process involves filtering heated crude using diatomaceous earth.

Electrostatic Desalting Flow Chart

The feedstock crude oil is heated to between 150° and 350°F to reduce viscosity and surface tension for easier mixing and separation of the water. The temperature is limited by the vapor pressure of the crude-oil feedstock. In both methods other chemicals may be added. Ammonia is often used to reduce corrosion. Caustic or acid may be added to adjust the pH of the water wash. Wastewater and contaminants are discharged from the bottom of the settling tank to the wastewater treatment facility. The desalted crude is continuously drawn from the top of the settling tanks and sent to the crude distillation (fractionating) tower.

Feedstock

From

Process

Typical products – to – unit

Crude oil Storage Treating
  • Desalted crude to Atmospheric distillation tower
  • Waste water to Treatment

The potential exists for a fire due to a leak or release of crude from heaters in the crude-desalting unit. Low boiling point components of crude may also be released if a leak occurs.

Because this is a closed process, there is little potential for exposure to crude oil unless a leak or release occurs. Where elevated operating temperatures are used when desalting sour crudes, hydrogen sulfide will be present. There is the possibility of exposure to ammonia, dry chemical demulsifiers, caustics, and/or acids during this operation.

Depending on the crude feedstock and the treatment chemicals used, the wastewater will contain varying amounts of chlorides, sulfides, bicarbonates, ammonia, hydrocarbons, phenol, and suspended solids. If diatomaceous earth is used in filtration, exposures should be minimized or controlled. Diatomaceous earth can contain silica in very fine particle size, making this a potential respiratory hazard.

Inadequate desalting can cause fouling of heater tubes and heat exchangers throughout the refinery. Fouling restricts product flow and heat transfer and leads to failures due to increased pressures and temperatures. Corrosion, which occurs due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, naphthenic (organic) acids, and other contaminants in the crude oil, also causes equipment failure. Neutralized salts (ammonium chlorides and sulfides), when moistened by condensed water, can cause corrosion. Over-pressuring the unit is another potential hazard that causes failures.