Pilot plants: destined for development

Pilot plants are on the verge of an unprecedented evolution. Read about the 10 factors that'll impact the design, construction and operation of these next-generation units.

By Richard Palluzi, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co.

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Wireless technology

We have only begun to scratch the surface of using wireless technology for pilot-plant operations. While the long distances between sensors and control, which are driving this technology in plants, usually do not exist in pilot plants, its lower cost, greater flexibility and reduced construction time make the technology too attractive to ignore for much longer. As wireless devices become cheaper and more common, thanks to their use in plants, they will gain greater acceptance for pilot plants. As time goes on, they will replace the usual hardwired systems from small tank farms and remote operations. We will see greater use of wireless highways not just to gather data but also to transmit data to end users and storage.

Instrument availability

Small-scale magnetic flow meters, vortex meters, corrosion probes and numerous other devices were but a dream for most pilot-plant designers 20 years ago. Now many are becoming increasingly common and low cost. The growth in this area will continue. The availability of these devices will allow pilot-plant designers to solve some issues that have plagued them for years (much as the advent of thermal mass-flow meters in the 1970s finally put to rest the search for an ultra-small-size control valve to use with differential pressure devices). The resultant boost in accuracy and reliability will, in turn, enable pilot plants to produce valid useful data with every run — obviating statistical analysis of several runs to address inaccuracy and non-repeatability.

Instrument multi-functionality

Multi-functional units will proliferate. Pressure transmitters will simultaneously measure temperatures; flow meters also will provide pressure or density in a single unit. Calibration of most new transmitters will occur while the unit is in place and online. While the individual transmitter will be more expensive, it will be smaller, more accurate and more reliable. The decrease in installation costs will more than offset the higher purchase price. These multi-functional units also will interface more easily with control and data-acquisition systems, generating additional savings in programming and set-up.

Unit size

The days of the size of pilot plants shrinking every generation are probably approaching a realistic end. However, the use of very small high-throughput “pilot plants” (which actually are more akin to very complex experimental equipment) will increase. These high-throughput units will handle much of the screening currently performed more slowly and expensively in standard small pilot plants. Highly automated pilot plants then will run the promising leads at a more realistic and scalable range, to evaluate synergistic effects and operations at transient conditions as well as process conditions more realistic of a plant environment. The combination, when properly applied , will produce a greater number of high quality leads faster, and provide a means to screen these for the next generation of process or product improvements. Modeling will continue to augment and validate pilot-plant operations and, in the always symbiotic relationship, pilot plants will continue to augment and validate modeling.

Cost impact

The combination of all of the trends described will translate into increased cost to design, construct, start up and operate next-generation pilot plants. It also will raise the expense and effort to keep these pilot plants effectively running. The days of maintenance support being a few craftspeople on loan from the plant or hired when needed through a local contractor are over — although many maintenance functions will be routinely outsourced for cost or to gain access to specialists. Just as the “tooth to tail” ratio in the modern military keeps getting smaller as the lethality of weaponry and their associated complexity increase, so the “unit to support” costs of pilot plants will shrink; the data will become better, more useful and more focused — but keeping units working properly will incur higher costs and effort. The traditional process and mechanical engineering support requirements will continue, matched now by computing, automation, safety and electronics support requirements.
Will all these predictions come to pass? Probably not, although I think most will, in some form or another. Beyond these, I forecast that an even-more-novel trend, not mentioned  nor even imagined by most pilot-plant personnel, will arise and significantly change the way we all design, construct and operate our pilot plants. After all, that’s what research is all about, change, both planned and predicted, as well as new and unexpected!

These predictions, of course, represent my personal view, not necessarily that of ExxonMobil or any of its affiliates.

Richard Palluzi is a senior engineering associate at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co., Annandale, N.J. E-mail him at richard.p.palluzi@exxonmobil.com.

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