Why should effective fouling removal be a priority for plant managers?

Louise Davis

Following new research on the impact of heat exchanger cleaning, Nikki Logan explores why effective fouling removal should be a top priority for plant managers

The detrimental effects of fouling affect process industry operators’ profit, environmental impact and operator safety, which in turn affect the majority of plant personnel, financial stakeholders, governing bodies, regulators and a plethora of people in between.

It’s a big problem, but often one that is expected to be resolved by contracting the same cleaning company that the plant has used for years, despite the typical use of traditional cleaning methods that offer limited success and accessibility.

In addressing the damaging effects of fouling, a recent study commissioned by process cleaning engineers, Tube Tech International, reveals new calculations on the significant efficiency saving potential that can be experienced following the use of pioneering robotic fouling removal technology.

The Downfall of Traditional Fouling Removal Methods

Tube Tech International’s white paper, ‘A techno-economic overview of fouling in steam crackers and available solutions’, examines numerous mechanical, chemical and hydroblasting fouling removal methods that fall short of the full cleaning potential that can be achieved. Examples include the inaccessibility of traditional water jetting and the implications of chemical cleaning, including the detrimental impact on the environment, inability to pass through blockages or remove hydrocarbon fouling and the risk of eroding metal surfaces.

Cost is invariably a key driver when it comes to choosing cleaning contractors, but this reduces the opportunity for specialist contractors to establish the most efficient and cost-effective solution, often resulting in subsequent attempts at a further cost and interference to turnaround procedures.

Using ethylene production via steam cracking as an example in studying the effects of fouling and the benefits of efficient fouling removal, the study reveals that at historic prices of US$1,000 per ton of ethylene, the lost revenue for five-10 days of lost production would be US$14-US$28 million respectively.  

To put the significance of these figures into context, virtually every industry contributing to gross domestic product (GDP) growth relies on products derived from an ethylene-based chemical. It serves as a key feedstock for several high revenue chemicals. In identifying that these calculations are based on a conservative ethylene price, with prices per ton having risen to US$1,500 in the USA within the past decade, this research further validates the argument that “an ethylene plant’s output amounts to millions of dollars of product every day and it is of paramount importance to avoid erosion of margins due to process inefficiencies.”

Hindered by fouling processes such as chemical reactions, coke formation, biological processes, crystallisation and corrosion, there are various assets within an ethylene plant that can become fouled, causing partial or complete blockages that result in millions of lost revenue.

The Cost Savings Of Robotic Cleaning

Leading fabrication specialist Manoir Industries, in conjunction with HZ Consulting, contributed new research to the white paper on heat loss due to fouling. Their calculations identified the significant cumulative savings that could be achieved following Tube Tech International’s robotic cleaning of a fouled convection bank. For a plant with five furnaces in operation, it is estimated that in the three-year period after a robotic clean, a saving of US$5.44 million is possible. 

Over the past two years, Tube Tech International has experienced unprecedented demand for its robotic fired heater cleaning technology, which is remotely operated for optimum safety and accessibility and removes at least 90% of fouling – considerably outperforming some other fouling removal technology or equipment.

“We commissioned this white paper to really highlight and provide an insightful understanding of the huge cost-saving and environmental benefits of effective fouling removal,” explains Mike Watson, CEO. The firm was granted a total of €5 million in 2018 for two projects as part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 funding. “Our clients frequently comment on the quick return on investment after our team have been in; not only are they able to instantly increase their profit, but the reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions are also crucial to environmental responsibility.”

In acknowledging that plant operators are restrained by budget, the company is calling for a top-down management strategy that enables operators to choose a plant cleaning method that ensures no additional plant slowdown, shutdown or loss of yield, attributable to fouling occurred. In shifting the strategy from a siloed approach constrained by maintenance budgets, there is opportunity to invest in overall plant economics for much greater financial performance.

Nikki Logan is with Tube Tech International

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