Evolution of bitumen: strategically important product by TAIF-NK

Indispensable link of the road pavement, reliable waterproofing for numerous residential and industrial facilities, roofing materials and much more: all these are bitumen

Evolution of bitumen: strategically important product by TAIF-NK
Photo: Roman Khasaev

Tatarstan is one of the regions of the Russian Federation actively developing a network of highways. Hundreds of kilometres of new highways are built annually, thousands of kilometres of existing highways of federal and regional significance, municipal and local roads are repaired, reconstructed and restored. And almost everywhere where work is underway to improve the road network, bitumen produced by the TAIF-NK Oil Refinery is used. The journalist of Realnoe Vremya found out about how and when his own bitumen production appeared in Tatarstan, how it developed, what products and for what purposes they are produced today, having visited the enterprise. Read the details in the material.

From a bird's-eye view

If you look at Tatarstan from a height, it immediately becomes clear: the republic is really a region with an actively developing economy. Moreover, in a variety of directions: in agriculture, animal husbandry, construction, oil refining, chemistry, petrochemistry, automobile, airplane, helicopter, shipbuilding, trade and many other industries.

Hundreds of kilometres of roads are built, reconstructed and repaired in Tatarstan annually. Photo: rosavtodor.gov.ru

An actively growing economy cannot do without logistics arteries — numerous roads and highways. All this thousand-kilometre economy requires constant attention: construction, expansion, repair. And the work is in full swing. In 2022 alone, it is planned to invest almost 174 billion rubles in the development of the road sector of the Republic of Tatarstan, which, by the way, is 4,6 times more than in 2021.

Most of these funds, 101 billion rubles, will be allocated for the construction of the new high-speed highway M12 Moscow-Kazan. And a direct participant in these large-scale processes is TAIF-NK oil refining complex, which is part of TAIF Group. And we are talking not only about gasoline and diesel fuel for special vehicles, but also, to a much greater extent, about the supply of high-quality road bitumen to key contractors of road construction processes that meets the strictest requirements of GOST RF, the standards of the member countries of the Eurasian Customs Union and international quality standards.

Oil Refinery

To find out how bitumen is produced, or more precisely, a wide palette of various bitumen and polymer-bitumen binders (this innovative material will be discussed later), developed and manufactured for use for various tasks and in various climatic conditions and load levels, the journalist of Realnoe Vremya went to TAIF-NK Oil Refinery itself.

“If you look into history, back in the early 2000s, the Government of the Republic of Tatarstan assigned our Oil Refinery the task of obtaining various brands of road and construction bitumen. In 2005, the design began with the delivery of equipment in 2006. In 2007, the Biturox unit, built using Austrian technology, was launched," said Vladimir Lakhomov, the director of the refinery, who decided to conduct a tour for media representatives himself.

Director of the refinery, Vladimir Lakhomov, himself undertook to conduct a tour of bitumen production for Realnoe Vremya. Photo: Roman Khasaev

Vladimir Vladimirovich knows his production, or rather, all the productions headed by him, from beginning to end: he himself began his career in oil refining at the TAIF-NK JSC refinery as a fifth-class operator, as well as the general director of the entire JSC and its chief engineer.

“The first point in the production chain is the raw material containers in which the mixture is prepared for Biturox. Depending on the formulation, part of the tar, part of the vacuum gas oil is fed into the reactor. Already from the raw material tank, the mixture is fed into the reactor by a charging pump," the director of the plant explained the fundamentals of technology.

The oxidation reactor is the heart of production. The technology itself is both simple and complex at the same time. Raw materials are tar (a residual product of crude oil refining at the ELOU AVT-7 unit) and vacuum gas oil. The oxidation procedure is also not as simple as it seems. Special stirrers do not leave the mixture at rest for a minute.

Oxidation reactor is the heart of bitumen production. Photo: TAIF-NK JSC

“Due to this, a large contact area is created between the oxygen of the air and the oxidised raw materials. This technology, this reactor, give the opportunity to more finely adjust the quality parameters of the process, and, accordingly, to obtain higher-quality bitumen," Alexey Khramov, the chief engineer of TAIF-NK JSC, explained the importance of this process. By the way, he himself began his professional career in oil refining at the refinery.

The secret of the quality of the product and the acquisition by each brand of its own special properties required for certain operating conditions lies in the details: the composition of tar, mixing proportions, oxidation period, pressure and temperature, as well as the residence time of the mixture in special conditions for each brand of bitumen.

All stages of bitumen production at the refinery are automated and controlled from the operator room. Photo: Roman Khasaev

“There are a lot of nuances in the production of bitumen. There is a special temperature regime and pressure. The responsibility is high. All processes in our production are automated. Control over the implementation of technological processes is carried out from the operator's room. Naturally, the automated process control system operates. The processes are controlled remotely from the control room," Vladimir Lakhomov told the journalist.

How is formulation born?

Customer orientation is one of the foundations for the successful conduct of any business in modern conditions. And everyone's requirements are different: bitumen that is needed for laying the roadway or creating roofing material in hot regions and countries should have completely different properties than those intended for the middle part of Russia, with seasonal temperature fluctuations in the range of more than 70 degrees. There are already their own requirements where frosts reign most of the year. For each request for TAIF-NK, we are ready to give our own recipe. Or create something new.

“We always expand the range of our bitumen products in accordance with the requirements of new GOST, taking into account the requirements of our consumers, so we can say that the initiators of the development of new bitumen brands are our consumers. There are cases when consumers, and there are both domestic and foreign, need bitumen with specific physical and chemical properties that differ from the standard requirements of GOST. Based on the experience that we already have, we conduct laboratory tests on the basis of the central factory laboratory of the TAIF-NK refinery, and then, when we are convinced of the stability of the modes that laboratory tests show, we transfer production to an industrial unit. Thanks to the scientific approach, analysis of a big amount of accumulated data, including the hydrocarbon composition of base mixtures, the working modes of Biturox reactor, it is possible to quite accurately choose compositions, modes to produce high-quality bitumen according to the latest standards, including Superpave method, which becomes very popular in road construction now,” vice head of the Petrochemistry and Oil Refining Office of TAIF JSC Marat Idrisov explained to Realnoe Vremya’s journalist in an interview.

“In the development of bitumen formula and PBB, we completely do it ourselves — highly qualified staff of TAIF and TAIF-NK. Photo: Roman Khasayev

The candidate for technical sciences precisely in bitumen materials played a hand and put his knowledge into most formula of those brands made in the factory today. And more than ten are mass produced.

“We receive a request. I analyse, create formulas, oxidation modes, the formula of mixing feedstock flows, components. We test all this in the lab and after successful results are obtained, the technology is transferred to the unit. Such an approach of formula development for requirements of new standards is seriously simplified because of using mathematical analysis methods of a huge amount of data we have accumulated throughout the operation of Biturox, including our accumulated knowledge about the hydrocarbon composition of mixture components, chemical properties of oxidation and the impact of these factors on the quality of the end product. We always try to use science in applied tasks — there is no other way. In other words, we completely do it ourselves — highly qualified staff of TAIF and TAIF-NK. Without inviting external specialised scientific organisations and centres,” stressed Marat Idrisov.

Laboratory state in state

The control over the technology of processes at all the stages from feedstock delivery to end product shipping is the strictest. This is the job of the central lab of the oil refinery.

“The samples that are taken are sent to our central lab of the plant where specialists analyse them and add the indicators to the system. Process operators see the results online and depending on the data received they make a decision — how to change processes if needed,” Vladimir Lakhomov specially stressed.

All samples are received in the lab with an individual code, which rules out any interference in the analysis. Photo: Roman Khasayev

No matter whom the journalist had to talk when preparing the article, everybody talks about the lab and its staff, especially its director Margarita Urmanova.

“She is a principled woman. She obeys nobody in general. She writes the truth and then will control it,” the director of the plant shared.

The director of the lab welcomed the journalist in the workplace — in one of the departments, which are many here. And it is clear: everything that is used in the production and created in the oil refinery is examined and analysed in detail here — from crude oil to the whole range of products that are made: naphtha, sulphur, kerosene, diesel and jet fuel, bitumen and polymer bitumen binders. It needs a lot of equipment. But what it needs more is experience. Lab workers constantly learn something new, improve their qualifications. It isn’t accidental that precisely this lab is considered one of the best in the republic. The competency was proven by a certificate. As for the fact that the central lab is sometimes called “a state in the state”...

“An accredited person must be unbiased, independent, competent and discreet. Therefore nobody can influence our workers and our lab in general. The samples are encoded when doing tests. Therefore a lab worker doesn’t know what sample is received. The worker knows that this is bitumen of some brand. This is enough to do tests,” Margarita Urmanova highlights.

Margarita Urmanova chairs the central lab of the oil refinery of TAIF-NK JSC. Photo: Roman Khasayev

“TAIF-NK’s management is generous with creating conditions that are needed to do research and analysis. When Realnoe Vremya’s journalist arrived, laboratory workers were learning how to use the equipment to determine bitumen density that was received in the lab.

As for the creation of new brands, according to the head of the lab directors, this process is in place because of years of work and big practice.

“We know the components involved in this formula, the quality of these components. Therefore we try to elaborate the formula as fast as possible and make it look like the final version,” notes Margarita Urmanova. According to her, the testing of the formula of a new brand can take a week.”

50,000 tonnes a year only for Tatarstan roads

The installed capacity of bitumen production in the oil refinery of TAIF-NK JSC allows making more than 100,000 tonnes of bitumen a year. Moreover, for different needs.

“In this unit, we can make different brands of road bitumen, construction bitumen, roof bitumen. Everything depends on what the commercial service will order. Mainly road bitumen is now seasonally popular. Roads are actively built in Tatarstan,” said Vladimir Lakhomov.

The Biturox unit allows making a wide range of different-purpose bitumen. Photo: Roman Khasayev

According to the data received in reply to a request sent to the Tatarstan Ministry of Road and Transport, the road programme in Tatarstan annually covers at least 50 km in construction and reconstruction and big repairs — more than 300 km. Also, over 310 streets and up to 120 km of municipal roads are put into order. In addition, it is necessary to consider that 10 km is put into order with money from the municipal road fund. Add such big construction projects as the M-12, the construction of the Big Kazan Ring, and it gets clear that a lot of bitumen is needed for such a scale. For instance, in 2021, the republic needed a total of 127,000 bitumen and 8,000 tonnes of polymer bitumen binder to do the whole complex of works.

“About 50,000 tonnes of bitumen made in the Republic of Tatarstan by TAIF-NK JSC was used in 2021,” the ministry told Realnoe Vremya. Moreover, they stressed that “the quality of TAIF-NK’s bitumen completely meets all the requirements that are made.”

According to the Tatarstan Ministry of Road and Transport, TAIF-NK JSC supplied about 50,000 tonnes of bitumen for road construction in the republic. Photo: mindortrans.tatarstan

One can easily make sure that TAIF-NK’s bitumen is very popular when going to the end product shipping zone. Huge cubes hardly have the time to fill. There is constant clash under the loading rack: bitumen carrying boilers replace each other by putting the mouth of huge vessels into thick pipes of dispensers.

There is constant clash under the loading rack of bitumen production of the oil refinery of TAIF-NK JSC around the clock. Photo: Roman Khasayev

“Almost all the bitumen we make is sold in the domestic market today. And the Republic of Tatarstan is the main outlet. Alexeyevskdorstroy and Tatavtodor are our key clients. However, we sell our products not only to end enterprises. Any company can participate in organised tenders. It is either ONLINE Contract or SPB MTSB JSC — Saint Petersburg International Commodity and Feedstock Exchange, In fact, our product is available for all consumers,” explained Askar Sulteyev, commercial management director of TAIF-NK JSC.

Askar Sulteyev: “Almost all the bitumen we make is sold in the domestic market today.” Photo: Roman Khasayev

Weigh-in with empty vessel on the wheels before the entrance, weigh-in before departure. The weight difference is on the operator’s screen. Every transport has a shipping list and the product’s certificate. This is strictly overseen. There are railways and the possibilities of loading six railway cisterns at once are on the other side of the loading rack. This is how Tatarstan bitumen travels to other regions and countries.

“Bitumen immediately goes to road construction from here. The temperature of bitumen used is one of the main characteristics of the materials. It needs to be transported quickly. When the technology is followed, newly built roads must service for 12 years,” the director of the oil refinery commented and added: “I proud of my work, and not only because of bitumen. Half Tatarstan uses our diesel, planes use our jet fuel, this is why we can proud of not only bitumen. And all this is made here, in the oil refinery.”

After loading, bitumen immediately goes to road construction areas. Photo: Roman Khasayev

Vladimir Lakhomov immediately answered the journalist’s question why if the quality of bitumen so good, the roads in Tatarstan and not only in the republic have to be repaired so often — it is a sore point:

“Bitumen is important but not the only component that defines the quality and life of roads. A good road is 1,5 metres high with crushed stones or bitumen and asphalt. Only the upper 10 cm of the road is made with bitumen. And the content of bitumen in upper layers doesn’t exceed 5% of the weight on average. As you see, there isn’t much bitumen in the road, while the road production technology is complex. It is at least wrong to say that problems with the quality of roads in Russia only because of the quality of bitumen shipped from the oil refinery. Bitumen is added to the crushed stone, and such a thin film of bitumen in the upper layer of the 1,5-metre ‘pie’ cannot be fully responsible for the quality of roads.”

A good road is 1,5 metres thick. Bitumen is used only when creating the upper 10 cm. Photo: asfalt-kachestvo

What can be the reason? It is hard to answer this question. What to do? Use new, completely new materials in roads with big and huge traffic and new design methods considering both climatic specifics of the place for road construction and traffic there, including for the upper layer of the road. As for the state-of-the-art materials, TAIF-NK also successfully mastered the production of polymer bitumen binders a long time ago.

PBB perfect for Russia but popular abroad

“Roads are constantly under impact: natural, mechanical, vertical, horizontal. It is necessary to recognise that ordinary oxidised bitumen doesn’t have elastic properties. In other words, when there is no impact, it doesn’t take its initial shape and size. But the use of polymer bitumen materials or polymers in the composition of bitumen allows improving its elasticity among other things. In other words, there is elastic deformation. This allows improving dumping properties of both bitumen and the road created with it, which boosts the quality and life of the road. Also, polymers in bitumen allow improving its resistance to ageing due to temperature, UV and other climatic factors. In general polymers in polymer bitumen binders expand the life of both bitumen and road in general,” Marat Idrisov is convinced.

The PBB plant is located next to the storage cubes of the main bitumen production plant. Photo: Roman Khasayev

The production of PBB was launched in the oil refinery of TAIF-NK JSC as early as 2015. The PBB plant is located next to the storage cubes of the main bitumen production plant. And it is easily explained: the same oxidised bitumen is the foundation for the innovative materials.

“But several components besides bitumen are added in. Polymer is butadiene styrene rubbers, and vacuum gas oil made here, which serves as plasticiser.”

One of the first lots of polymer bitumen binder was used in experimental mode in a road section Naberezhnye Chelny — Zainsk — Almetyevsk in Tukay District, Tatarstan, not far from Begishevo airport. This was in August 2016.

“A part of the road section was experimental, from PBB-60 in Standard 52056-2003 by TAIF-NK. And it turns out that there has been no rut for six years now,” the vice head of the Petrochemistry and Oil Refining Office of TAIF JSC shared his observations. Why is there a rut? Why do roads crack? Because these temperature differences in our climate destroy roads. And bitumen can heat and leak because of the sun. But these additives, rubbers, make bitumen rubber-like, so to speak. It becomes elastic like a ball. You press it, it crushes but then bounces back. Before this, we had built a small unit in 2015, installed it in our system, launched and got a product,” Vladimir Lakhomov explained.

Besides classical bitumen, PBB contains about 5% of butadiene styrene rubber. Photo: Roman Khasayev

“An Austrian-German polymer bitumen production technology with the help of a colloid mill was introduced. It is a new generation of bitumen where up to 4-5% of special polymers are added to the bitumen formula. Such bitumen has unique low-temperature properties, high elasticity indicators — in other words, this is a product of oxidation of oil residues in interaction with polymer made at Nizhnekamskneftekhim. When we started this job, options with components of such famous companies as Kraton, LG Chem were considered, then we switched to the use of SIBUR polymers — Voronezhsintezkauchuk, and the results weren’t worse than that of foreign companies. Later, when Nizhnekamskneftekhim mastered this production, we get all feedstock components to make both ordinary bitumen and PBB from one Nizhnekamsk site,” Alexey Khramov added.

Alexey Khramov: “Different options of polymers for PBB were considered, but after NKNK set up its own production, all the feedstock we use is from Nizhnekamsk.” Photo: Roman Khasayev

The colloid mill, temperature, pressure, a special component — as a result, there is a new product with unique properties and characteristics.

“Yes, it is more expensive than ordinary bitumen, but not critically. But it is bitumen that isn’t impacted by mechanical loads and temperature. It is the perfect option for our climatic conditions. Nowadays mainly southern countries buy PBB. We export it to Uruguay, Bolivia. It recommended itself well there. The only thing is that there are not PBB brands abroad. There is PG, our PBB was certified,” the director of the oil refinery shared.

However, the understanding of the advantages of the new binder grows step by step as well as the demand for new brands.

Margarita Urmanova: “A new PBB was recently developed.” Photo: Roman Khasayev

“Nowadays PBB-60 is the main brand. It is our main polymer bitumen binder brand. And we recently developed another brand. We prepared, examined and analysed it. I can say it has better qualities of polymer bitumen binder, and thanks to it the quality and life of the road improves. There are additional requirements for the resistance of bitumen — brittleness and melting point, the ability of withstand a load, elasticity and so on,” Margarita Urmanova notes.

“PG — PBB — is very popular in the market today. We regular talk with consumers — our road builders. And as far as we are concerned, the standards changes towards PG. It is a challenge of the era. And we meet this demand being able to offer the market this product,” Askar Sulteyev stressed.

Askar Sulteyev: “We meet demands of the market and offer new products.” Photo: Roman Khasayev

To ship PBB to foreign consumers and Russian consumers from remote regions, there were created polymer bitumen binder packaging units into 1- and 2-tonne big bags and boxes in 2016-2017 next to the main loading rack. After cooling down, the cubes are loaded by a lorry into wagons like in Tetris and sent to the client. Moreover, this can be done all year round by simply accumulating the necessary amount of the product during the season.

The factory mastered PBB packaging into big bags and boxes for exports abroad and remote regions. Photo: Roman Khasayev

“And we didn’t stop even here and nowadays our technologists, TAIF-NK staff actively elaborate bitumen production according to new standards — the so-called Superpave standards. The specifics of this standard, bitumen made according to this standard is that the climatic zone where this bitumen or PBB is going to be used is evaluated, and options are picked depending on this. Most importantly, in this method, the focus isn’t on the properties of bitumen after the production but the stability of these properties after ageing. It is those standards, measurement methods, those bitumen and PBB indicators that haven’t been used in Russia earlier. And our technologists learnt how to make even such a product. I need to say that we certainly have a competitive advantage in its production: the formula uses a unique product that is produced in tar hydrocracking. Since we are the only users of such a unit in Russia, and only we have such a component in the whole world. We can make a product corresponding to some PG brands both from the classical feedstock — that’s to say, residual oil vacuum distillation residues — and the use of tar hydrocracking residues. It is a game changer in the bitumen and PBB production. Today we can make 5-6 brands of this product. At the moment, the consumer market is examined for this product. As I see, big road builders either in the republic or Russia are the classical consumer of such a product,” said Alexey Khramov.

The high quality of TAIF-NK’s PBB was appreciated at republican and federal level. Different polymer bitumen binder brands have repeatedly won contests in Tatarstan and Russia.

Benefit matters, but this isn’t key

During the talk with experts of TAIF-NK JSC and the head company of Group TAIF JSC, it was simply impossible not ask the question: “Won’t the production of bitumen considered as dark oil products close after the Heavy Residues High Conversion Facility whose main feedstock is tar and vacuum gas oil, which is used for bitumen, but where very profitable, quality light oil products are made?” As it turned out, no.

Bitumen production isn’t the most profitable business, but this is what Tatarstan and Russia needs for road construction. Photo: Realnoe Vremya

“I would say it this way: a lot depends on the quality of roads, the road surface, the road network, including the production economy. Delivery and shipping of freight, general logistics is cheaper with quality roads. It turns out that not only the republic in general but also industrial enterprises that use these roads win because of the quality of materials used in road construction. TAIF-NK is an active user of roads. We are interested in quality roads. Consequently, we benefit from their quality. Therefore the construction of quality roads from quality materials following all formulas and requirements seems to be crucial for me. One shouldn’t think that bitumen is a kind of social product for us. It is also necessity for us,” Marat Idrisov expressed his confidence.

“Of course, tar and vacuum gas oil processing into light oil products is more profitable, when such unique facilities as the Heavy Residues High Conversion Facility appear and there is a possibility of processing tar into diesel, naphtha and kerosene fractions, the bitumen price changes a bit too. In this case, mazut processing competes with prices for diesel fuel, not commodity bitumen. Since we are the only modern industrial plant in Tatarstan making a wide range of bitumen, we cannot cancel the responsibility in front of the republic, its citizens. Any investments related to words have a long-term effect: the economy in general develops. And the consumer simply won’t reach our fuel without roads,” Alexey Khramov agreed with this opinion.

Vladimir Lakhomov: “Nobody has cancelled the necessity of bitumen. Road builders need it.” Photo: st42.stpulscen

“Why do we continue making bitumen? The answer is very simple: the Heavy Residues High Conversion Facility doesn’t make bitumen. While bitumen is in demand in the market. Roads need to be made from something. This is why no matter what good factory is built, nobody cancelled the necessity of bitumen. Road builders need it. Moreover, with such a scale of road construction like here in Tatarstan. Suffice it to mention the M7 and M12 roads,” Vladimir Lakhomov said briefly but concisely.

To expand, improve and diversify the brand range: these are the tasks the bitumen and PBB plant of the oil refinery of TAIF-NK JSC sets for itself. More bitumen — more better roads, logistic arteries for the region with an actively developing economy.

Arseny Favstritsky