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What is Catalytic Reforming?

By Paul Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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Catalytic reforming is a petroleum refinery process in which low octane distillation products known as naphthas are chemically converted into high octane reformates. High octane reformation products produced from naphthas are used on their own in various industries or as additives in high octane products like gasoline. This catalytic reforming process involves restructuring hydrocarbon molecules in the naphthas in such a way that they form more complex chemical structures with higher octane ratings. The process of catalytic reforming has an added value in that it produces other desirable byproducts which are then used elsewhere in the refinery.

High octane petroleum products are complex hydrocarbon chemicals which do not occur naturally and are not produced by simple distillation of crude oil or coal tar. To synthesis these complex hydrocarbons, the low octane naphthas — i.e., flammable hydrocarbon mixtures such as kerosene which are products of crude oil and coal tar distillation — are subjected to a chemical process known as catalytic reforming. There are several different versions of this chemical process all of which produce different reformed products. These extremely complex processes rearrange the molecular structure of the naphtha elements, breaking several of the molecules down into smaller units in the process. The end result of this process is a far more complex hydrocarbon structure with elevated octane values.

Benzene is one of the distinct catalytic reformation products and is widely used in various industries as a solvent or a constituent of plastic, synthetic rubber, dye, and drug manufacture. Benzene is also used in addition to other catalytic reforming products such as toluene to boost the octane rating of gasoline, also known as petrol. Gasoline on its own is a low octane product of fractional petroleum distillation. Isopentane is another highly volatile reformate which is used in conjunction with liquid nitrogen to achieve extremely low fluid temperatures.

The basic variants of catalytic reforming include platforming, powerforming, ultraforming, and thermofor reformation. All these processes use noble metal catalysts such as platinum and rhenium in conjunction with high heat and pressure to achieve reformation of low octane naphthas. These catalysts are periodically regenerated, typically every six to 24 months, although newer plants regenerate their aged catalyst components continuously in-situ. The catalytic reforming process, which typically takes place at temperatures of between 923 to 968 degrees Fahrenheit (495 to 520 degrees Celsius) and pressures as high as 1,000 psi (69 bar), produces hydrogen, methane, ethane, propane, and butane gas byproducts which are then utilized elsewhere.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Oct 16, 2011

@Mor - I think you're underestimating the huge amounts of oil that are used in industry. We are nowhere near able to replace it with any other substance easily at the moment.

Even vegetable oil, which seems to be a viable alternative in some ways, is difficult, because it takes up so much viable farmland to grow the plants needed to produce it. The price of food has gone up because so much land is being taken even for the relatively small amount that's already being used.

I think alternative power sources are the answer for as much as possible, and maybe we'll just have to continue to use catalytic reforming to get products from oil for a long time.

By Mor — On Oct 15, 2011

@KoiwiGal - I think in many cases there are other substances that can serve as substitutes for oil when manufacturing products. Vegetable oil of various kinds in particular is being developed as a replacement, as is products from algae and cellulose and so forth.

Oil from the ground is the cheapest way of manufacturing at the moment, and there are a lot of vested interests in keeping it that way for now, but people aren't completely stupid.

If oil disappeared tomorrow it would certainly make a huge mess, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. And, a more likely scenario is that it will gradually become less and less necessary for manufacturing and other industry purposes and the average person won't even notice.

By KoiwiGal — On Oct 14, 2011

It's amazing how many different products are produced from a single substance, oil.

It actually scares me quite a bit, because when people think about oil, they mostly think of petrol, and how cars would be affected if there was an oil shortage for whatever reason.

But, it would affect much more of daily life than that.

As it says in the article, just one byproduct of oil is used in plastics, drug manufacture, synthetic rubber and more.

Modern industry seems to be entirely dependent on oil in order to function. So we'd better hope that nothing ever happens to the supply, because if modern industry broke down, all the people living in cities would very quickly be in trouble.

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