A new era of growth for the fuels and chemicals market

Domestic refiners and petrochemical plants are looking to expand the process of exporting refined fuels.


Oil refineries, petrochemical and chemical plants are looking forward to a new era of growth from North American shale opportunities. New cheap, light crude supplies presently have to be refined domestically before export of refined fuels. Domestic refiners and petrochemical plants are looking to expand processes to take advantage of this new feedstock. According to forecasting from the American Chemical Council, 148 projects have been announced to a total value of $100 billion worth of investment.

Many of these projects include unit expansions and new process additions. These new units, when complete, should feature all the latest and greatest technology to increase production, safety and reliability. In the meantime, plants presently operating face increasingly large efforts to ensure their facilities run cost effectively, efficiently, safely and reliably. To enable these efforts each Key Performance Indicator must be measurable and sustainable.

New regulatory compliance pressures add to the burden placed on North American plants. The most recent addition to these regulations is likely to be the new Environmental Protection Agency Tier 3 rules, which plan to cut gasoline sulfur levels by more than 60% to 10 parts per million, starting January 1, 2017. These new low sulfur regulations will create additional costs to gasoline and may require hydro-treating process modifications as well as possible new sulfur recovery units. Additional cost estimates to the gasoline consumer range from 1 to 9 cents a gallon.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigates and issue reports on site incidents. These reports are published widely creating significant publicity. One of the most recent suggestions to overcoming future safety problems is Inherently Safer Techniques (IST). These practices have been driven throughout Europe.

From safety, regulatory compliance, to plant availability, these increasingly more rigorous requirements leave refiners and petrochemical plants with a challenge on how to implement such solutions. In this respect, plants steam systems are no different from any of the other plant processes.

Full Solutions versus Band-Aids

Plant operations rely heavily on the capabilities and efficiencies of their steam system. Efficient condensate removal and recovery can improve system efficiency, and improves safety concerns. Unless steam systems are viewed as a vital artery of the plant, steam traps and leaks may be left untouched for long periods of time. Repairing and replacing necessary system components only when other priorities have been exhausted results in a reactive, rather than proactive maintenance approach. It is not uncommon to imagine a situation where condensate is not effectively discharged from the steam space allowing condensate to fill pipes and fixed equipment. In other situations steam traps may have failed open passing flash steam to atmosphere or return lines. One situation causes lost Btu's, the other causes potential safety hazards and reduced efficiency of equipment throughout the steam loop. Reactive maintenance risks fixed and rotating equipment, which are touched by steam, to become negatively affected through poor heat transfer, inefficient operation, tube bundle corrosion and gasket leaks. Often steam pressures are increased to patch-over these issues. Additional steam usage, venting and resulting safety hazards lead to accelerating costs without any clear identification of the cause of such increased operating costs. Reliability of fixed and rotating equipment can be affected detrimentally.

Taking the path of analysis along with implementation of a full solution can be a challenging but rewarding roadmap to plant reliability, safety and efficiency. An initial path of discovery can identify system issues and visualize present and potential future problems. Evaluating and improving the system, not simply repairing and replacing with like for like will support and aid a preventative and proactive approach to maintenance. Identifying opportunities to improve the energy efficiency of the entire steam system in a holistic approach will improve utility usage, increase product quality, yield and throughput. Standardizing on steam components allows for quick and easy change outs along with efficient inventory controls and results in right first time outcomes.

The oil refining and petrochemicals industries have significant challenges ahead but there are clearly effective and comprehensive best practices which will increase plant safety, reliability and efficiency. A commitment to sustaining these practices will result in a lower total cost of the steam system and produce long term benefits to meeting industry safety and compliance regulations in an easy and effective manner.

Neil Davies is the business development manager for the Fuels and Chemical manufacturing segment at Spirax Sarco. Content provided by Spirax Sarco, originally published in Steam News Magazine. Edited by Brittany Merchut, Project Manager, CFE Media, bmerchut@cfemedia.com 

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