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PROCESS puzzler

Fix A Fouled Fractionator

Cleaning a column of soap sludge calls for careful contemplation

DEVELOP A DIALOG have overwhelmed the vacuum This Months

The engineer writing about the is-
sue needs to sit down and discuss
pump. I advise you to use the
percent recovery of the top Puzzler
his perspective of the solution and product instead of the reflux We just started toll manufacturing
also listen to the plant managers ratio in your simulations be- a synthetic lubricant but had to end
perspective and rationale. The cause of future change in feed production abruptly. As we do for
engineers perspective is defined conditions. lots of chemicals we produce, we use
but not every detail has been 7. I f you have a pilot facility, you process equipment that previously
spelled out. Thus, I am not sure can test conditions before going had made other products. In this case,
all the issues have been described. commercial. we employed a vacuum tower filled
Both the plant manager and the 8. I f cost permits, consider sizing with structured packing that recently
engineer need to prepare a list of a new plant for your new prod- handled distillation of omega-3 fish oil.
causes and check them out one ucts, probably anticipating up It was cleaned with steam and deter-
step at a time. Yes, it might take a to three or more future prod- gent before our campaign.
bit longer to solve the problem but ucts with close characteristics When we started up, we saw a poor cut
the biggest benefit will be build- in your design scenarios, then in our reflux tank before the vacuum
ing mutual trust and cooperation. select the worst case scenario pump so we maxed out the reflux ra-
That will have long-term benefits. to govern your design. tio and increased the reboiler tempera-
They are more important than Dennis Omenka, process engineer, ture. Shortly after that, we killed flow to
solving by I win and you lose PetroGas Systems Engineering the tower because the vacuum pump
methods as has been postulated in Ltd., Lagos, Nigeria tripped on over-current. Then, after the
the puzzle description. shutdown, we noticed a cracked elbow
Girish Malhotra, president THE COLUMN IS FOULED in the PVC chilled water line feeding the
EPCOT International, One of the dangers to process condenser. When inspecting the tower,
Pepper Pike, Ohio engineers after a near-miss like I discovered a toluene vapor cloud.
this one is giving into political Our plant manager is convinced the
RUN NEW SIMULATIONS pressure from production manage- vacuum pump failed because of poor
Evaluate the column performance ment. Find out what caused the maintenance and dealing with that issue
and check equipment capabilities: problems, sort out the root cause will end our problems. His other theory
and deal with it! is that the plate-and-frame condenser
1.R un a simulation using new Lets start by itemizing the may be leaking because of gasket
conditions. problems: 1) the vacuum pump contraction. Im wondering if he got this
2. Verify that the reboiler and tripped on over-current; 2) right. What do you think?
condenser duties match the production couldnt seem to get
required service conditions. the cut they were looking for; 3)
3. O pen the tower for inspection a fiberglass elbow broke; and 4) a
to check for fouling/deposi- toluene vapor cloud leaked from
tions. the column.
4. C onfirm the vacuum pump is Sometimes, its best to attack
sized correctly for the current an investigation chronologically.
application. And, sometimes, as in this case,
5. M axing the reflux ratio means its better to prioritize the events
that you are not controlling the by risk. It appears the failure
reflux. of the vacuum pump poses the
6. I ncreasing the reboiler tem- greatest risk because, with heat
perature wastes energy and may being applied to the column from
lead to higher vapor loading. the reboiler and the absence of a
The increased vapor load may vacuum, pressure will build and

33 December 2016

PROCESS puzzler

the column relief valves will open. Did the relief problems. A high current draw and a broken
valves open to form the cloud or did a seal some- vacuum seal could mean a broken pump. Pull the
where leak? Its important to consider this. pump for inspection. First, consider what caused
Hopefully, your design includes a pressure the pump to trip on high current. Start by in-
switch at the discharge of the valve; pressure specting the piping because its easiest. If you cant
transmitters are a bad idea because they dont find a fouling intake, then you have to dig deeper:
typically record a pressure spike of a duration pull a tray out of the column. It could be that
shorter than 0.01 second. If you dont have a your cleaning procedure caused the fish oil to sa-
means of determining if the relief opened, pull the ponify. Saponification is the process used to make
valve immediately to see if the outlet is wet. soap by reacting a fatty acid ester with caustic
If the relief didnt open, then youve got real soda. If this occurred, it could explain everything

We use a vertical turbine pump to move slop oil from a sump problem with the pump and tower? Should we be worried
to a steam stripper (Figure 1). Everything worked fine until we about this during normal operations?
had a recent turnaround. When we started the next day, the Send us your comments, suggestions or solutions for
stripper column began to rattle. It sounded like cavitation. this question by January 13, 2017. Well include as many
The pump was operating fine, although closer to its thermal of them as possible in the February 2017 issue and all on
deadhead point. In addition, I noticed the feed flow control Send visuals a sketch is fine.
valve opening to the stripper rose about 20%, from 71% open E-mail us at or mail to Process
to 92% open for 60 gpm. The operator raised the temperature Puzzler, Chemical Processing, 1501 E. Woodfield Rd., Suite
set point from 240F to 250F but the noise in the tower con- 400N, Schaumburg, IL 60173. Fax: (630) 467-1120. Please
tinued. Shortly after the operator changed the set point, we include your name, title, location and company affiliation in
observed cavitation in the pump and shut it down temporar- the response.
ily to clean the suction strainer; fortunately, we could switch And, of course, if you have a process problem youd like
to a spare pump. The mechanics wont have the suction line to pose to our readers, send it along and well be pleased
broken down for an hour or so. What do you think caused the to consider it for publication.


BP Orifice
: 0.8 in
dP: 61.67 psi
El: 39 ft Slop oil properties assumed at 80F: El: 30 ft
20 hp P: 92.65 psig SG = 0.86; viscosity = 0.7 cP; VP = 1 psia. P: 48.39 psig
Slop oil properties assumed at 240F: Steam stripper
SG = 0.83; viscosity = 0.6 cP; VP = 23 psia. Set P: 35 psig
Vert. turbine pump 2 in., sch-40
Level: 2 ft
Op: Fixed Speed
TH: 418.1 ft
dP: 155.8 psi
NPSHa: 39.37 ft
Pdisch: 154.6 psig Vortex FT dP:
Speed: 1760 rpm 7.635 psi
Power: 15.37 hp Pipeline flow: 60 gpm
Min. Flow RO El: 7 ft
NPSHr: 4.077 ft 0.25 in., 14 gpm P: 58.12 psig
2 in., sch-40
El: 4 ft
Filter Preheater
P: 72.64 psig
dP: 3 psi Flow (Hydraulic): 60 gpm
Strainer El: 37 ft dP: 5.76 psi
Stripper feed FCV 62.18 gpm
dP: 0.721 psi P: 1.548 psig Heat Transfer: 2.932E+06 BTU/h
Flow: 60 gpm
delta T: 160F
dP: 5.527 psi
T in: 80F
23.67 Cv
T out: 240F
Position: 70.97 %
Choked Flow: 214.7 gpm
Light slop El: 40 ft
oil sump P: 38.07 psig
Set P: 1.25 psig
Level: 12 ft

Figure 1. System worked fine before a recent turnaround.

December 2016  34


from the poor quality cut at the condenser to the

broken fiberglass elbow. CHECK OUT PREVIOUS PUZZLERS
Heres what I think happened. The column To see all the Puzzlers that have been published over
was fouled by the cleaning process. The opera- the years, go to:
tors started the column with the synthetic oil, voices/process-puzzler/.
probably a C20+ aliphatic chain, and the toluene
solvent. The trays, being fouled, had a much-
reduced working surface area, and the operator water-hammer analysis and dont allow rapid clos-
tried to get the desired cut by cranking up the ing of valves. A snubber in the actuator air line
reboiler. Operators, and their managers, dont might do the trick. Heres an interesting article
always tell you what they really did, and some- about low-temperature PVC applications: http://
times dont understand it as well as they should.
With the temperature as high as possible, the The tray fouling takes more thought. Lets re-
condenser responded: the condenser cooling valve member that a soap is an ionically charged organic,
opened. When the operator raised the reflux ratio, a surfactant. You might get away with pumping it
this increased the valve opening again. Unfortu- with hot water but dont use steam! A better solu-
nately, the velocity of PVC pipe should be limited tion might be to go the other way: use product oil
to below 8 ft/s to avoid water-hammer. The high and then pass it through a filter before running it
velocity and probably poor mechanical design through the column again. This approach has the
caused the elbow to crack. It might even have advantage of not being a disposal headache.
been cracked before then. Dirk Willard, consultant
The solution to the cracking is easy: do a Wooster, Ohio