A Different Plant Appears on the Horizon

Advances in a variety of areas will transform processing.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Microchannels adjacent to process channels can serve as integrated heat exchangers, doing away with the need for separate pieces of equipment and enabling simple control and optimization of temperature for the particular application.

Thin channels with small gaps and counter-current vapor and liquid flow lead to highly efficient mass transfer. Where a conventional column may require 60 cm to achieve a stage of separation, a microchannel distillation unit may provide the same separation in a distance of less than 1 cm (Figure 2).

Benefits of microchannel distillation include low capital and energy costs, simple capacity expansion, compact footprint and short hold-up time, which minimizes exposure of chemicals to temperatures required for distillation.

“In the near term, Velocys is looking for partners and applications for small-scale and pilot-scale uses of microchannel distillation,” says Larry Plonsker, a consultant for the company.

Of course, other techniques also may offer advantages. For instance, the European Federation of Chemical Engineering (EFCE), Frankfurt, Germany, on June 17 awarded its coveted EFCE Excellence Award in Process Intensification for` 2009 to Carsten Buchaly for his Ph.D. thesis on the optimization of a hybrid process combining reactive distillation with vapor permeation. However, Buchaly, now with BTS in Leverkusen, cautions that lack of more advanced tools for predictive simulation is hampering development of this “very promising” technology.

Untouchable Advances
Virtual reality and wireless data transmission may be physically hard to grasp — but their impact on plants won’t be.

Immersive virtual reality plant (IVRP) is very much a coming technology, believes Maurizio Rovaglio, Milan, Italy, -based vice president solutions services, EMEA, for Invensys Process Systems (IPS). Users, who initially focused on control room training, now consider IVRP as a serious cost-reduction tool, he says.

“One of the main issues is plant safety. Twenty-five percent of all the money spent by a refinery on training its staff goes on safety. But customers say they don’t really have a tool that does this effectively because so many solutions are passive. Using IVPR, staff can also see inside processes (vessels, reactors, burners and so on) and actually see fouling, for example, in progress.”

The technology can speed training. “IVPR is also an important and effective way to cut the need for so much on-the-job training. We think we can cut this by up to 50%; so new staff can reach the required standard in six months rather than a year,” notes Rovaglio.

IVPR also can lead to operational and maintenance benefits. One IPS customer requires eight hours to start up its steam reformer because 250 tasks — 120 in the field —need to be completed before and during the procedure. IPS believes IVPR can cut this time by one to two hours. “Overall, we can save between 1 and 3% of a maintenance budget, which is huge money,” he says,

Wireless technology also should gain far wider use (see “Whither Wireless"). Many plants won’t need much convincing. In a recent CP online poll, nearly 60% of respondents rated their site’s interest in wireless as “high” or “very high.” The technology offers enhanced capabilities for condition monitoring, troubleshooting and much more, providing benefits to operators, process engineers and plant managers.

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