Processing Magazine

US chemical industry expansion will bring sophisticated technologies mainstream

June 19, 2012

While the global economic environment today is one characterized by great uncertainty, the outlook for the U.S. chemical industry is said to be considerably less sanguine. This is primarily so because of the discovery in the U.S. of great stores of shale gas fields; development of technology for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling; and the price of natural gas, which is five times cheaper here than it is in Japan, for example. Thus, infrastructure, technology and market developments have come together to change the process industries.

As new plants are brought online, and older plants are revamped, it’s foreseen that the installed technology base of these new facilities will be considerably upgraded from plants today in operation, which in many cases were built at least several decades ago. For example, in July’s Processing Flowmeter Solutions, which will soon be published online, flowmeter expert Jesse Yoder predicts common differential-pressure flowmeters will see replacement by Coriolis and ultrasonic flowmeters.

Advances are possible also in the use of gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy in process plants.

“Chromatography and spectroscopy involve some of the more difficult concepts for plant personnel to get their heads around,” Michael Gaura, product manager, Emerson Process Management, Rosemount Analytical, says. “In addition, use of chromatography usually either meant bringing samples to the lab so that results weren’t immediately available or the chromatograph’s near-process installation involved enclosure construction.”

What’s coming, Gaura says, will be a big change in how plants are built. “If we combine an advantage in the cost of feed stocks, with plants that are automated and built to operate with less labor, we considerably level the playing field in competition with plants located elsewhere in the world.”

Upstream, oil and gas companies install gas chromatographs upstream to monitor production output for H2S, moisture and other parameters, for the most part looking to monitor production for strategies leading to a “sweeter” crude oil.

Petrochemical companies working downstream refineries and chemical plants want to move away from lab testing or having to treat analytic instruments with kids’ gloves. “Given a certain degree of comfort with the technology,” Gaura says, “what these companies want are more robust devices, with wider temperature ranges, a smaller footprint and less power consumption.”

Today’s instruments are easier to use and adapted to make it easy for operators to switch back and forth between different feedstocks, Gaura says. “In an ethylene plant, for example, you can tailor for different feed stocks, having alternate, multiple streams configured for olefins or even oil, making it much easier on the end users.”

Gaura predicts that the next-generation chemical processes will embrace chromatography. One final factor favoring more general adoption is that Rosemount Analytical instruments can communicate via Foundation Fieldbus with programmable controllers or distributed control systems.  And while users remain wary of using wireless in control applications, they jump at the chance to bring down the cost of monitoring applications.

What other technologies have a chance to go mainstream based on an expanding chemical industry?