Everything happens for a reason within the confines of the refinery and petrochemical plant

Chancelor Williams

March 22, 2021: Everything happens for a reason. At least within the confines of the refinery and petrochemical plant piping and vessels, this is true. But that reason often isn’t obvious and takes the right combination of skills and tools to reveal it. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to the operations side of the process industry. Armed with those beautiful laws of thermodynamics, I had an opportunity to play detective on a regular basis. 

I recall one particular case involving repeated near misses on exceeding emissions limits from a sulfur plant. At random intervals, the Tail Gas pressure control valve would jump open, releasing Tail Gas to an incinerator and bumping up against the permitted SO2 emissions limits. At the beginning of the investigations, the list of potential causes was practically endless. Was it a problem in the Tail Gas Recycle Compressor? Maybe there was a plug in a Condenser Seal Leg? Was the pressure spike even real at all, or was the pressure control valve responding to a phantom instrument anomaly?    

Starting at the scene of the crime and painstakingly checking every instrument and detail back to the source, after 4 hours I discovered a faulty connection on a temperature transmitter used in the temperature-pressure compensation for the oxygen flow meter feeding the Claus Furnace. This caused a spike in oxygen flow, upsetting the stoichiometric ratio for the catalyst beds downstream, leading to poor conversion and overwhelming the Tail Gas Recycle Compressor. 

What took hours in 1997 to assess can now be done within minutes with today’s sophisticated digital tools. Using advanced data analytics, continuous instrument diagnostics can be applied to every instrument in the field, which also provides immediate indication of a failure. With a hybrid 1st principles-statistical model, the process can be accurately modeled to highlight the source of process upsets. This model continuously learns the nuances of one particular plant to better forecast the response to changes in feed, operating conditions, or other disturbances. Even better, this model creates so-called “soft sensors,” revealing transport property data about the process, where no transmitter in the field exists.

So, whether it’s revealing insights not previously available with traditional tools, or simply taking the data analysis burden off the shoulders of the plant personnel, digitalization can increase the effectiveness and expand the capabilities of today’s operators, engineers, and plant managers.

Nikhil Chauhan

Key Attributes of Successful Digital Transformation in the Energy & Chemical Industry

Nikhil Chauhan

15 February, 2021: The energy & chemical industry is a laggard in digitalization as compared to other industries such as media, banking, retail, insurance, etc. There are some fundamental reasons behind this. The first one is the energy & chemical industry’s capital intensive nature and the fact that operators do not want to fiddle with their multi-billion plants and assets until the digital technologies and solutions are proven, reliable, and demonstrate the clear value of their investments. The other factors are that the energy & chemical plants are complex and driven by many variables which necessitate multiple skills and capabilities to implement a scalable digital solution successfully. 

This blog describes the key attributes of an organization which can successfully implement digital transformation strategies across their plants and assets:

  • At the onset, what organizations need is an executable digital strategy and a roadmap for implementation.
  • Companies should be ready to change their systems and work processes to reflect the digital work to be done viz. short digital implementation cycle, scrum sprint approach of execution, and digital solution subscription or perpetual license fee.
  • Skills and staff are very important to realize the complete value of digital transformation. Organizations need to have four broad levels of skills and associated staff – Big Data and Artificial Intelligence; industry domain expertise such as refining or its specific unit, ethylene cracker etc.; functional domain expertise such as process, maintenance, control system; and finally solution strategizing and formulation capability.
  • The style or the culture also plays a critical role and is primarily driven by the top management. It needs to approve of the digital roadmap and accordingly communicate to their internal and external stakeholders. Consequently, they should be willing to invest for quick success and attractive returns. The organization also needs to be ready for quick fail or pass of any digital technology or solution. In case of success, the solution needs to scale. On the contrary, in case of a failure, the organization needs to learn and try a new concept.
  • Finally, an organization needs to be working within their Shared Values and should talk in one consistent voice to get rid of the silos which helps leverage data, insights, or certain skills across the departments.

Hence, to sum up, it is these attributes that work in cohesion to ensure that an organization succeeds in its digital transformation initiatives and gains a competitive edge.

Nikhil Chauhan