Could the Rise of Vacuum Gas Oil (VGO) Signal the Fall of Oil?


Could the Rise of Vacuum Gas Oil (VGO) Signal the Fall of Oil?


Vacuum gas oil (VGO) is a mix of hydrocarbons produced during the extraction of crude oil. VGO was relatively useless until recently when large scale vacuum distillation became feasible. Vacuum distillation allows the mix of hydrocarbons to be broken apart into smaller and more useful sized products - like gasoline, propane, and diesel. Over the last several years, the use of VGO has skyrocketed, which is be a sign that the oil and gas industry to fighting to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of their extraction processes.

20 October 2021 – by Eric Koons

Vacuum Gas Oil (VGO), or gas oil, is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the fossil fuel industry. Produced as a byproduct in the crude oil refining process, VGOs are a complex mix of hydrocarbons.

Until recently, they were relatively useless, but advances in refining can now turn VGO into a valuable fuel – like gasoline and diesel.

Upgrading VGO into other fuels makes it extremely valuable by allowing flexibility in the fuel constituents produced – longer or shorter chain hydrocarbons.

But despite its efficiencies, the environmental impacts are a cause for concern.

How are Vacuum Gas Oils Produced?

To first understand the role of VGOs, we need to look into the initial oil refining process – down to the crude.

When crude oil arrives at a refinery, it enters a steam boiler and a distillation tower. Here, the oil is heated and separated into various fuel ranges based on boiling points.

Smaller hydrocarbon chains have lower boiling points and produce highly desirable fuels – propane, gasoline, kerosene, diesel. Alternatively, longer hydrocarbon chains have higher boiling points and generate less desirable products such as lubricants and asphalt.

Crude petroleum distillation fractions, which play a major role in the conversion of vacuum gas oil to desirable petroleum products.
The melting points of different hydrocarbon fractions from iStock Photo

But before the extraction of longer hydrocarbon chains, the crude goes through a cracking unit. The cracking unit breaks hydrocarbon chains into smaller sections, turning them into more valuable fuels such as gasoline and diesel. This process is where the “vacuum” in VGO comes in.

Catalytic cracking is a crucial step in breaking the carbon chains during VGO conversion.
Diagram of a cracking unit from from Journal of Applied Petrochemical Research

The remaining large carbon chain products move into a vacuum distillation system. By creating a vacuum, the boiling point of the products is lower. The lower boiling point allows distillation at lower temperatures, allowing the breaking apart of these larger products more economically feasible.

The entire production process means that more “useful” fuels develop from raw crude oil – in other words, VGOs.

What is behind the popularity of VGOs?

As we move past peak oil and existing reserves become more costly to extract, increasing refinery efficiency is becoming ever more critical. Fuel sources such as VGOs can become a cost-effective way to generate more fuel from existing crude supplies.

The Growth of VGO

Major refineries are noticing. Between 2016-2019, three new vacuum gas oil facilities were developed globally by Gazprom Neft, Zhejiang Petrochemical, and Lukoil. All focused on upgrading VGOs to valuable fuels.

This focus on VGOs has seen the market share jump significantly. The market size in 2018 was USD 346.8 billion, and experts believe it may grow to USD 527.2 billion by 2026 – a 52% increase in just eight years.

The Asia Pacific (APAC) region expects to see the highest growth rate (5.5%) as demand for fossil fuels in the area continues its climb.

Fossil fuel and vacuum gas oil demand is expected to steadily increase in Asia over the next decade.
Vacuum Gas Oil Market Demand from Reports and Data

Fracking and Vacuum Gas Oils

The environmental costs of the extraction and refinement of all fossil fuels are enormous. But VGOs have an even more consequential impact as they are also a byproduct of shale oil originating from fracking.

Many of the oils extracted during fracking are thick, with long hydrocarbon chains – ideal for VGOs.

The environmental impacts of traditional fossil fuels and fracking are well known, but fracking stands out above its counterparts due to its reliance on and destruction of natural resources. Some of the impacts of fracking are:

  • Requiring water and other dangerous chemicals to be combined and used for the process.
  • Releasing methane as a byproduct during the fracking process.
  • Causing irreparable damage to water tables from byproducts and poorly built wells.
Fracking has several associated environmental concerns.
What is Fracking from Let’s Talk Science Source:

The consumption and contamination of water are the prime negative characteristics of fracking. These environmental impacts, by association, includes VGOs. Across the globe, fracking concerns are now widespread, yet the practice drags on.

The Future ofVacuum Gas Oils

While being an oil and gas industry development and increasingly becoming more economically viable, the future of VGOs remains unclear. VGOs association with fracking and the environmental and health costs that come with it are a cause for concern, along with other more attractive alternative fuels and the electrification of society.

As the globe moves ahead with renewables and the electrification of society with its decarbonisation plans, the role of VGOs looks limited. The energy mixes based on renewables and electrification of multiple nations are already chipping away oil’s historical market dominance. The transition happening before our eyes could spell the end of the world’s addiction to oil.

by Eric Koons

Eric is a passionate environmental advocate that believes renewable energy is a key piece in meeting the world’s growing energy demands. He received an environmental science degree from the University of California and has worked to promote environmentally and socially sustainable practices since. Eric’s expertise extends across the environmental field, yet he maintains a strong focus on renewable energy. His work has been featured by leading environmental organizations, such as World Resources Institute and Hitachi ABB Power Grids.

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