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Process heaters are indispensable in fight against climate change

Online Editor

Dennis Long, chief system designer at industrial technology manufacturer, Watlow, explores how process heaters can facilitate decarbonisation efforts.

The use of heat is crucial to the processing and refining of hydrocarbons and historically, fossil fuel-based heaters have been the go-to solution for these applications. However, driven by the increasing urgency to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and achieve decarbonisation objectives, engineers are investigating the viability of using electric process heaters during these operations.

Moving away from fossil fuel

Process heating is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial sector, and so replacing fossil-fuel based heaters with electric ones running on green energy should significantly help with decarbonisation goals.

Specifically, replacing fossil fuel heaters with electric heaters would allow for a reduction in Scope One carbon dioxide emissions. Scope One emissions, as defined by environmental impact group Buhler, are the direct result of burning fuels like natural gas or fuel oil for process heating. Scope Two emissions result from the need to import energy, while Scope Three emissions are produced while using a product such as the emissions from vehicles on the road. All three types must be reduced to hit global decarbonisation targets.

The impact of Electric process Heaters

A survey conducted by Watlow for its customers and prospects revealed that 90 per cent of oil and gas leaders are already actively engaged in decarbonisation efforts. Hydrocarbon processors are no longer focused on if they should decarbonise, but how.

So why aren’t electric process heaters more ubiquitous in the energy sector today? Surprisingly, familiarity might be the main reason. Until now, such heaters have played only very narrow roles in hydrocarbon processing and were usually smaller, operating at lower voltages. Although larger heaters are easily imaginable, engineers recognise that a number of questions arise when it comes to their control and maintenance. Ultimately, no one wants to be first into the water when it comes to running larger medium-voltage thermal systems.

The positive news is that modern electric heaters can provide equally good, if not improved, performance on fossil fuel powered heaters.

Maintaining consistent control

Some of the most common questions about larger process heaters have to do with control. What additional elements are needed to ramp up the heater? How is temperature monitored and controlled? And what additional safety precautions are needed?

The lack of traditional usage of larger electric heaters for heating processes in the petrochemical industry does not imply that the technology is unproven. On the other hand, proven power switching devices have been employed for low voltage electric process heaters and medium voltage motors across various industries and have a well-tested capability to regulate voltage.

Power management systems

Programmable logic controllers and similar power management systems bring heaters online to help prevent problems for other devices connected to the same power source. The heater and controller are part of one closed-loop system, which streamlines integration and yields more control over the entire system.

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