Inside View

Vegetable Oil Refinery and Deodorization Plant

Konstantin Tkachenko
In Ukraine, politicians and economists cannot but talk about the country's "raw material curse." While the civilized world manufactures value added products, Ukraine produces raw materials only. And even our key industry, the production of sunflower oil, which preserves the world leadership, gets beans. "We sell vegoil in bulk, in the West it is refined and packed, and we are satisfied with the least we get," sound the remarks towards the fat-and-oil industry. Yet we know that the reality is very different, and there are plenty of successful examples of oilseeds processing in Ukraine. One of them is the GradOil Refinery in Kropyvnytsky.

Back in 2012, an oil crushing plant was built there, specializing in two crops processing — sunflower and rapeseed. However, over time, the company came to the fact it had to start the extensive processing. Within the year 2017, the USD 9 million oil refining and deodorization facility was constructed in 10 months.
Oilseed Perspectives for Ukrainian Agriproducers (in Rus.)
Stanislav Tarshin, the owner of the GradOil Group of Companies, notes that this is an evolutionary growth of the company. Moreover, this is a high-margin business. Today, if we talk about production volumes, the refining workshop receives 250-270 tons of crude vegetable oil daily, and produces 240 tons of end-product.
Stanislav Tarshin, the owner of the GradOil Group of Companies
Stanislav Tarshin, the owner of the GradOil Group of Companies
Words can't do. Everything can be seen with one's own eyes.

Two fat-and-oil brothers

Oil crushing plant and oil refining and deodorization facility are actually neighbours. Crude vegoil from the crushing plant is transported by pipelines to two raw material tanks 1 thousand m³ each. Then it is fed through the gallery to the refining workshop. At the plant, this transportation process is called "the life gallery." The oil, which is already refined and deodorized, returns in its finished form.
This same gallery is used for the conveyance of condensate, steam, water for heating and other needs. Gaseous nitrogen for maintaining a nitrogen cushion in the tanks of finished products to prevent oxidation of oil travels through it as well. This, in turn, extends the shelf life of vegetable oil up to 24 months. But we have gotten a little ahead. Let's return to the start of production.
Vladimir Solovey, Deputy Director of GradOil Refinery for Technical Issues
Vladimir Solovey, Deputy Director of GradOil Refinery for Technical Issues
We enter the workshop, although not a pungent but there is a specific soapy smell. Vladimir Solovey, Deputy Director of GradOil Refinery for Technical Issues, explains that this is the smell of soap stock, in other words, the refining process waste.

According to him, the production process starts with oil purification, which, in turn, includes 5 phases.
Процесс рафинации и дезодорации масла
The first one, with the complex name "water hydration", is the mixing of crude oil with water to remove phosphorus-containing substances. After some retention for the formation of precipitating phosphatides flakes, the mixture pumped into the separators, where it is divided into hydrated oil and precipitation. Once, the hydrated oil is vacuum-dried, it travels to the second phase.
The separated hydration precipitation is vacuum-dried and sold to consumers. The commodity name of the product is "phosphatide concentrate." It is used for lecithin production, raw material for food additives, cosmetics, etc. The company trades it abroad.

The second phase is called "acid hydration and alkaline neutralization." The purpose of this phase is the removal from the oil of free fatty acids and phosphorus-containing substances unseparated during "water hydration."

Oil from the first phase is treated with phosphoric acid and alkali solution. This mixture is kept for some time for the formation of large amounts of soap stock flakes, and is sent to the separators, where it is separated into neutralized oil and soap stocks. That we smelled having entered the workshop. In fact, it is the smell of oil saponification. Soap stock is then supplied to laundry soap producing companies. That's right, soap and vegetable oil are kind of relatives.
Back to technology. Then follows the process of oil washing when 5 to 10 percent of soft hot water is added into the hot oil. As a result of separation, the content of soap residue and salts of heavy metals is reduced. The oil is then dried. The washing water is discharged into the waste water treatment plant.
Oil drying after separation
Oil drying after separation
Bleaching, the third phase, is a process by which colour-coding substances are removed from unrefined oil.
If you take the crude oil, it's more yellow-red, and the refined deodorized oil is white with a slight shade of yellow. Actually, this is what the bleaching process is for. If there are any soap residues present, we add a solution of citric acid, which removes these substances,
says Vladimir Solovey.
Heat exchangers for neutralization
Heat exchangers for neutralization
The fourth phase is the winterization (or dewaxing) of the oil, in other words, the removal of waxes. In fact, it is the separation of solids, which, by the way, can often be seen in the products of unregulated markets.
Winterizing filters
Winterizing filters
The fifth and final phase of refining is deodorization. The aim of the process is to remove odourising substances from the oil that give it flavour and odour, as well as some other components that are insignificant in the oil, such as free fatty acids and primary and secondary oxidation products.
Bleached (or winterized) oil is heated to 235-240 °C in a high-pressure boiler. The process is carried out under a deep vacuum to prevent oxidation of the product at high temperatures. The superheated steam is channelled to the deodorizer (the device in which the process takes place), thus facilitating barbotage, mixing of oil in the deodorizer for a more thorough refining process.

This is the final phase in oil preparation.

From heat to cold

Then the deodorized product undergoes three stages of cooling — first as low as at –150 °C and then at –25-40 °C. And finally, the oil is delivered to the "police filter" or, as it is called, a polishing filter. This is the control phase, when the oil becomes brighter and more attractive.

After that, oil is delivered to the finished product warehouse through a number of heat exchangers. At the same time, as we have already mentioned, it is saturated with gaseous nitrogen, so that it can be stored for two years.
At the beginning of our tour we saw raw material containers, but here we see 6 containers for refined deodorized oil. It is then fed into the packing workshop. After that it is loaded into transport and sent to ports. Vladimir Solovey says that even if they wanted to deliver oil in bulk, Ukrzaliznytsia does not have suitable tank wagons. Therefore, they use motor vehicles, flexitanks set in containers. The capacity of such tanks is 23-24 tons.
Shipyards in the finished products warehouse
Shipyards in the finished products warehouse
We spend about an hour in the refining workshop sweating like in a sauna. It is natural since the temperature here is +43 °C. Everything in the room is fully automated, so we can't see any employees working in the workshop except for the control room. But even if for one reason or another an employee needs to get into the refining workshop, a 15 minutes limit is set.

Each employee is provided with long-sleeved cotton clothing which must be securely fastened. As there are many mechanisms in the production process, clothes may get sucked into them and cause injury.

The Deputy Director for Technical Issues says that the majority of workers are based in the warehouses of finished products and packing. That's where we're going.

Pre-packing and packing

Before getting to the "holy of holies", packing workshop, we were lucky enough to follow the process of blowing bottles using the automatic blow molding machine APF-6004. Here 1 l and 0,85 l containers are manufactured. This per-second operation is performed in several stages: preheated with infrared lamps preform (PET bottle preform) enters the forming matrix, where stretching and blowing out with compressed air at a pressure of 35-40 atmospheres takes place simultaneously.

Within an hour, 6,000 bottles are blown out, and 130,000 bottles are blown out daily.
In the packing workshop, we see two lines — automatic and semi-automatic. Vladimir Umrikhin, Director of GradOil, says there was an original idea to build three lines. Actually, the idea is not rejected, the place, as well as the plans for the third one, are still there.
Vladimir Umrikhin, Director of GradOil Refinery
Vladimir Umrikhin, Director of GradOil Refinery
Currently, 1 and 0,85 l bottles are filled in the first production line. 6 thousand bottles are filled in this line per hour simultaneously with blowing.
5 l PET bottles are filled in the second line. Why is it semi-automatic? Bottles here are partially blown out manually. The machine receives a preform, an employee only needs to turn on two buttons for blowing. However, this is already classified as a "semi-automatic machine."
When we arrived, the oil was packed for Israeli and Chinese customers. We ask about the difference between buyers from different countries.
We have Halal and Kosher certificates. Our Israeli partners try to observe all processes, looking for additional substances, in case we add any. For example, there is a request for fortified oil. We want to buy specialized equipment. But before we produce it, we have to ask clients, in particular, Arab and Israeli, if they need it. We can still produce it in case of a negative response, but then we will have to conduct full flushing all the systems, invite partners and show that there are no remains of the previous product,
says Vladimir Solovey.
Enterprise Ready for Export: Is Your Product Compliant? (in Rus.)
The final stages of packing are capping, labelling, date stamping and box packing. A curious thing, by the way: in addition to inspecting all processes, such as checking for leak tightness of the containers, the laboratory technician at the plant also tests the package strength. For this purpose, filled bottles are suspended one meter high from the ground, and then the rope is cut. The bottle must withstand "free fall" and hitting the ground.


Vladimir Umrikhin shares that Ukrainian sunflower seed oil is rather popular on the world market:
Our oil passes all the safety tests. It meets all international standards and is in demand in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
As for the Ukrainian market, he believes it is saturated with large producers and dominated by well-known brands. To compete with them, one needs large capacities, as well as multi-million dollar investments in marketing. Consequently, the company made a decision to focus on export.
Map showing GradOil Group export geography
Map showing GradOil Group export geography
In general, the company considers China and Africa to be the most promising markets.

As for the former, the company "opened a window" to the Celestial Empire just recently, in May.
Late last year, they significantly reduced the import duty on sunflower oil. Now it amounts to 9%. Such a decision was made to make the population consume better quality foodstuffs. What is more, today in Ukraine there are a lot of Chinese specialists studying what we produce and the prices for products. Thus, the interest in our market will only grow,
Stanislav Tarshin is convinced.

Rapeseed perspectives

As we said, GradOil refinery specializes in two crops processing — sunflower and rapeseed. But the refinery is not tailored to the latter. The production process is virtually identical to that of sunflower oil. In addition, there is no such phase as decortication in the process of rapeseed oil production. The seed does not have a husk, it immediately sent for humid treatment and then for extrusion.

According to Vladimir Solovey, at that time there were prospects for rapeseed oil refining. Although, no customers for the required volumes were found. Besides, it takes a lot of time to convert the plant to rapeseed. So, it was decided to focus on sunflower for now. However, considering the prospects of rapeseed oil, the demand for this type of products is being studied intensively and its refining is planned for the next season.
ГрадОлия Рафинация инфографика

From producer to consumer

Before the excursion ends, I ask a typical consumer's question: what to pay attention to when shopping for oil.
There was a popular perception that palm oil fractions were added to the oil. But today, palm oil is more expensive, no one adds it. If we talk about economy versions in supermarkets, the producers often stretch the truth about the volumes. You will not find a one-liter bottle, not even 0,92 l, but 0,792 l. When they say that, for instance, a certain oil tastes different, I ask how so. After all, refined oil with all the technological processes observed, in particular, deodorization, has practically no taste differences. When you try it, it seems you eat a raw, immature seed having a sweet flavour,
adds Vladimir Solovey.
The informative and dynamic excursion dispelled doubts about the industrial production of sunflower oil. We have seen that the more such productions in Ukraine, the sooner we will get rid of the notorious "raw material curse."
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