Seal Makers Plug Away

Many new developments focus on niche applications.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Chemical makers are demanding more from seal technology suppliers than ever before. Vendors not only are expected to provide innovative solutions that work in extreme process conditions, but also to offer comprehensive emissions reduction and maintenance programs.

One result is the development of more niche products. This move by seal manufacturers, often stemming from new legislation, is an important issue for the European Sealing Association (ESA), Tregarth, Wales. "As some of the traditional (and lower technology) sealing products are tending towards commodities, manufacturers in Europe are switching their focus onto higher technology products which provide improved sealing performance, often directed towards specific applications," notes Brian Ellis, its secretary general.

Member companies are giving much more emphasis to customer training, especially for gasket and packings installations, he says. "This is because the ultimate performance (and lifetime) of a seal is extremely dependent upon getting it installed correctly. This has been compounded because the majority of the chemical, petrochemical and process industries have downsized their own in-house engineering departments and rely increasingly on outsourcing for their maintenance, where there is no guarantee of adequate education and training in the engineers. As an industry, we have struggled with this challenge for some time, initially by publishing a wide range of technical publications (in many languages) to provide guidance in these areas, but now we are into a program which includes: developing a training and accreditation standard aimed at engineering fitters; developing a training and accreditation scheme across Europe; and working with our colleagues in the FSA [the Fluid Sealing Association in the U.S.] to develop an educational webinar on packings installation."

Turning to another issue, Ellis voices concern about the ongoing challenge of sourcing fluorospar, the fundamental material in all fluoropolymers. China, the major supplier, has blocked its export, making fluoroelastomers increasingly hard to obtain. "The U.S. government is putting pressure on China to stop the block, but end-users — and especially chemical companies — are struggling to get products, and prices are rising enormously," he says.

Compounding the problem, many major suppliers of fluoroelastomer precursors cut production following a fall in demand in 2008 and then refocused on higher-value-added products. So, precursor output still falls short of prior levels. "You have two things intertwined here: there is a likely huge cost increase in the short term on the precursor materials, but the extremely limited availability of these precursors may go on for decades. It's like a perfect storm," explains Ellis.

"The only way out may be to put our hope in the development of good alternative sealing materials in as short a timeframe as possible," he concludes.

One new alternative material comes from Garlock Sealing Technologies (GST), Palmyra, N.Y. At the end of June, it launched Therma-Pur, a blended proprietary material designed for temperatures up to 1,800°F (1,000°C) (Figure 1). The material suits applications such as process drying equipment, mineral and fertilizer processing, oil and gas production, and cogeneration systems.

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