Applying Automation Advances in Refineries

Update and bump: Tim just let me know that he’s been elected to the position of 2nd Vice Chair for the AIChE Fuels & Petrochemicals Division (FPD). As described below, he’ll serve a four-year term including one year as division president. Congratulations, Tim!

Emerson’s Tim Olsen, a refining industry performance consultant, recently presented to Argentinean refiners on advances in automation. Tim has 20 years of experience in refining starting as a technical advisor on refinery unit startups for UOP before joining Emerson as a performance consultant. He has been active in the AIChE Fuels & Petrochemicals Division (F&PD), is a 3-year, nationally elected director for the division and is the programming chair for Topical 7 on Refinery Processing.

In his presentation, he shared some statistics on the amazing march of technology over the last 40 years. Computer processing performance has increased 50% per year compounded over the 40 years. RAM memory and disk space storage have increased in a similar manner. Communications bandwidth for both wired and wireless have also experienced exponential speed increases.

The exception to this exponential technology performance increase is software productivity. It has increased only 4% annually from the 1970s to 2000 and is even less for the first decade of the 21st century. It has become the dominant cost in system development and implementation. The upside is that software typically has a much longer life than hardware.

Tim highlighted some changes made possible by these trends including low-cost computing and communications, virtual organizations independent of distances, disappearing computational limits, and increased digitization since practical limits on storage space are disappearing.

Specific for refiners, the instruments that touch the process provide more than a process variable back to the operator. Build on digital bus networks, the operators and maintenance technicians receive the not only the process variables, but the goodness of the information. They also receive diagnostic and predictive alert information to help avoid abnormal situations. I recently highlighted some of these diagnostics accessible from handheld devices.

Refinery control rooms have also changed. Where once each unit had a separate control room with single loop analog control and panel board interfaces, there are now more site wide control rooms with coordinated multi-loop digital controls and high-resolution monitor-based operator interfaces.

The economic conditions in which refiners operate have also changed. Many may recall the days of cheap energy, cheap water, cheap waste disposal, less emission standards, predictable supply and price of raw materials, and a large talent pool. The controls and layered advanced software applications were the pricy component. These conditions have largely flipped over the past decade.

Tim offers many examples in the presentation. I’ll highlight one–the hydrocracker quench control valve. The digital valve controller on this quench valve can identify low instrument air levels and alert maintenance techs and operators before poor control response occurs. Early recognition and reporting of this situation is critical since the reaction is exothermic. If the operations staff reacts and repairs the instrument air levels, emergency depressurization and shutdown can be avoided. See the presentation for other examples on predictive analytics, plant turnarounds, system modernization, key performance indicators (KPIs), advanced process controls, and more.

I’ll also put in a plug for Tim having known him for many, many years. Tim has been active in the AIChE F&PD since 2002 and is seeking the 2nd Vice Chair position. When I asked how this works, he explained that you are elected as a 2nd Vice Chair, become the 1st Vice Chair the following year, assume the Chair/Division President the 3rd year, and become the Past Chair in year 4 to advise the new Chair. It sounds like they have a solid, on-the-job training model to me!

Members in good standing with AIChE should have received an email to vote on-line between January 15th and February 15th. If you’re a member, you can see the full list of candidates and positions and decide for whom you will cast your ballot.

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