Particle analysis makes solid progress

Plants benefit from real-time online measurements

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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The ability to both collect and use data in real time increasingly is driving process efficiency improvements and bolstering process optimization efforts. This is particularly true for particle characterization. The days of the off-line “snapshot” measurement and its labor-intensive methodology are drawing to a close.

Instead, fully automated, online analysis is becoming the technology of choice for the chemical industry. The benefits are numerous, including easier identification of changes in process conditions and far better product consistency.

Evolution of established particle measurement technologies is spurring much of the action, but there are some new wrinkles, too.

Laser diffraction

One well-established method is laser diffraction. For over three decades, Malvern Instruments, Malvern, U.K., has been a driving force in the development of the technology. Many of the world’s leading chemical companies rely on its Insitec analyzer during plant start-ups, shut-downs and operational changes. The Insitec can handle the multiple scattering that takes place at the high particle concentrations encountered in a process line — via a patented multiple scattering algorithm that ensures accurate particle size measurement regardless of process loading.

“We originally developed Insitec about seventeen years ago. In the face of our biggest ever challenge, the need for an intrinsically safe device for both the chemical and the pharmaceutical industries, a new Insitec was required” explains David Pugh, marketing manager for Malvern.

So the company developed a new version to keep up with evolving regulatory and other demands. The Insitec X sensor can be used in hazardous locations (e.g., ATEX Zone 20). Described by Malvern as the world’s first intrinsically safe online particle size analyzer, this real-time device can handle particle sizes ranging from 0.1–1,000 μm.



Figure 1. Plant trials using this easy-to-install unit have convinced companies to switch to online analysis. Source: Malvern Instruments.

However, a new consulting service that provides a five-day plant trial of the Insitec Voyager model (Figure 1) is generating even more interest. This mobile analyzer connects to the process when and where real-time measurements are needed. It suits dry processes with particles in the 1–1,000 μm range. Installation usually takes only a few hours. So, the bulk of the trial time is spent generating particle size data, allowing the plant to thoroughly explore the potential for improved control and to properly quantify the benefits.

“The consultancy is a low cost way of ‘seeing is believing,’” says Pugh. “In general, customers report payback times of around six months, but this approach delivers process-specific information. A trial also gives the user confidence that the technology will deliver the projected benefits.” More than 85% of potential customers, including several of the largest chemical companies, who have used the consultancy service have now switched to online analysis.

The burgeoning interest in online particle analysis also is spurring increased demand for training. “Fully trained customers get the most out of their instruments, which is what we want. However, we are seeing a high turnover in jobs and so today you often only get one specialist in charge of an instrument. Ideally we would like to see more than this,” notes Pugh.

New drivers

Meanwhile, Quantachrome Instruments, Boyton Beach, Fla., points to changing markets for much of its growth. “Essentially we are in the business of surface-area and pore-size measurement. It’s still a traditional business, so we are selling a lot to the petroleum and petrochemical industries — for use right from exploration through to catalysts and feedstocks. However, there has been a big resurgence in the last few years, driven by China and increasing demand generally,” says Martin A Thomas, Quantachrome Instruments’ director of business development.

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