Ninety years ago a British inventor made Linatex

Ninety years ago a British inventor, Bernard Wilkinson, worked out how to process the latex rubber from his trees in Malaysia using a low shear low energy process, which resulted in a form of rubber with excellent wear and abrasion resistance. The rubber, known as Linatex, retains the long chain high molecular weight composition found in natural rubber, which is typically not the case with normal commercial vulcanised rubbers. The company he founded, now known simply as Linatex, now uses this unique, red rubber to produce lined valves, pumps and centrifuges that are widely used in mineral processing plants, providing products that offer the best in abrasion and wear resistance for uranium, diamond and gold mines, and aggregates. Last week Linatex announced an expansion of their range, to offer knife gate and pinch valves, plus check valves, in sizes from 15mm to 24inches, for use in general industry.

In an interesting application close to (their) home, special grades of Linatex materials have been developed with a resistance to oil and oil based products, for use in the mushrooming palm oil industry in Southeast Asia, also providing membranes that separate the waste materials from the palm oil. These materials were then trialled in the oil-sands processing slurries found at Fort McMurray in Canada: pipe bends lined with the Linagard OSR rubber have shown 50% better wear resistance than competing rubber materials, and are even set to compete with hard metal surface cladding of such components. Maybe some of the benefits come from the expertise developed within the company in engineering the liners for process equipment, and also from that many of the liners are loose, therefore using more of the elasticity of the rubber. This also makes them site replaceable, and retrofit-able.

What other applications might find that Linatex performs better? Well there is one I can report immediately: the samples provided at their launch offer a far better grip for unscrewing stubborn brass screw threads on 150+ year old telescopes than the modern silicone alternatives. However, this is not a big market….

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The Abnormal Situations Management Consortium

The comments made last week about the operator interface for the more complex control systems now available led to information about an interesting user group that have studied this problem since 1994, the Abnormal Situations Management Consortium, http://www.asmconsortium.net. This consortium has a membership that includes Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Petronas, Sasol as users, UCLA and Nanyang University, and suppliers like Honeywell, UOP, Human Centred Solutions (a consultancy in human-centered design methodologies) and the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A+M.

The ASM Consortium has invested in research and development to create knowledge, tools and products designed to prevent, detect and mitigate abnormal situations that affect process safety in the control operations environment. Large plant explosions are an extreme in a gamut of minor to major process disruptions, collectively referred to as abnormal situations. On the average, a petrochemical plant will have a major incident every three years. Most abnormal situations do not result in explosions and fires but are costly nevertheless, resulting in poor product quality, schedule delays, equipment damage, and other significant costs. ASM Consortium site studies suggest that operations practices can lead to costs of 3-8 per cent of plant capacity due to unexpected events, which means the cost of lost production due to abnormal situations is at least USD10 billion annually in US petrochemical plants alone.

The research program objective is to conduct investigations and share experiences on factors contributing to the successful reduction of abnormal situations in chemical processes. A primary part of this is the exchange of information within the membership, and as appropriate, externally in the public domain to influence the global adoption of ASM solution concepts. The website allows access to some interesting papers presented at Consortium meetings, as well as relevant and topical news items.

As the major control systems supplier involved, the Honeywell contribution is to capture the knowledge represented in and developed by the Consortium and to return it to customers in the form of products and services that can be successfully deployed. An associated release from Honeywell this week advises that they have acquired rights to technology developed by Shell Global Solutions for gathering field data, helping industrial plants to safely increase production and reduce operating costs. The Operational and Technical Task for Efficient Rounds (OTTER) technology is currently used in more than 25 sites to help guide field operators as they execute key field surveillance tasks that keep assets running within safe operating limits and at optimum performance. It also delivers best practices to all field operators; provides decision support capabilities; improves regulatory reporting; and facilitates communication between groups to address problems immediately. Honeywell see this as an integrated solution for the mobile field worker, fitting well with their OneWireless network and Dolphin mobile computer devices.

Many skilled people in the process plant workforce are now reaching retirement age

Many skilled operators and engineers in the process plant workforce are now reaching retirement age, just at a time when the different levels of technology used on these plants has created a need for historical, as well as current device experience. Alongside this the lean staffing levels that meet current economic constraints mean that there are fewer people available to cover the holes in the available experience. Incidentally, InTech magazine in the USA recently reported that the American Petroleum Society estimates that 40% of the workforce in their industry reach retirement age by the end of the year. Add to this the investigations, such as those reported by CSB, into some recent petrochemical plant accidents, where the cause was attributed to “operator error”, and it was realized that the relevant engineers and operators in the control room had all been working on the job for less than a year.

These factors have major implications for the suppliers of the control systems, that have to communicate with these engineers and operators: Emerson presented their approach to this late last year, as reported in the current issue of Read-out magazine, http://www.read-out.net. As a new area of research for them, Emerson trawled the few institutions which study this problem, and finally chose to establish a relationship with the Carnegie-Mellon Human Computer Interaction Institute. Working on the problem since 2004, the answer is to be found in concentrating on the human side of the HMI, and make the systems capable of operating intuitively.

Read-out advises that Bob Sharp, President of Emerson Process Management in Europe, considers that new specialized knowledge is embedded in the control system, enabling it to say: “There is a problem! The problem is here, and this is how you fix it!” The objective is to bring about a significant improvement in ease of use, and workforce productivity.

Since the initial launch, Emerson have released various new products in support of this concept, the DeltaV S-series, the THUM adaptor, to convert any HART device to wireless, and this week, the Device Dashboards, as have been reported this week. Working in the AMS Suite: Intelligent Device Manager software, the dashboards provide, in one glance, a clear view of everything that users need to evaluate, diagnose and configure a field device. Each dashboard features embedded expert guidance to streamline the most important and frequent tasks performed by plant operations, engineering and maintenance personnel, in the same format whether the information comes from wireless, fieldbus or HART protocol communications, with shortcuts to the most often used tasks. Plus these new features are backwards compatible with existing installations.

The Sick Group

This review of the Sick Group arose from a presentation to the First Friday editor’s meeting in January 2010, and was submitted for use on the Processingtalk website on January 18th, but publication was not permitted, as it was not quoted to be of “sufficient interest”. I found it of interest, so have placed it here.

The Sick Group, based in Germany, but with half their employees in other countries, is quoted to be one of the world’s leading producers of sensors and sensor solutions for industrial applications. Over the past year Sick has placed a strong emphasis on the development of the business of their process automation division, which even a year ago was approaching 20% of the whole business, with a process turnover of 136Million Euro.

Dr Robert Bauer, Chairman, explains that “Innovation is the central element of our corporate mission statement”: this is confirmed by the figures, where 10% of the yearly sales value is typically invested back into R+D, a sum on a par with the annual company reported earnings. So when faced with the recession at the end of 2008, the probably typical Sick response was to announce the “Sick Innovation Marathon for 2009″, a publicity generation campaign and worldwide sales offensive, promising one new sensor solution each week, aimed at increasing production efficiency for the users. This has now been completed, with 52 new products or product ranges released, up to around the time of the 100th anniversary of Erwin Sick’s birthday, the founder of the company in 1946.

It was at PPMA in September last year that Sick launched their Industrial Instrumentation division in the UK, with pressure, level, flow and temperature measurement sensors: this week they expand their pressure sensor portfolio with a simple, compact pressure switch (Link). The PBS is suitable for process applications, as well as hydraulic and pneumatic systems, machine and plant engineering. The neat design incorporates a digital display of the analogue pressure reading, plus LED indicators showing the PNP/NPN switch output states, all within the 38mm diameter housing. Once screwed into position, the electronic connections and display can be rotated to suit the operator and cabling, without compromising the IP67 housing. Sick seem to have met their objective, providing an innovative quality instrument based on the best technology plus efficient and economic production.

Plant winterisation programmes

It was last January when CSB Chairman John Bresland urged process plants to ensure that they had effective plant winterisation programmes, to prevent major chemical and refinery process accidents. With many plants making operational and process changes, it is particularly important to ensure there are no unused sections of pipework that might still be connected to the process, but where lagging might be less effective and collected condensation can freeze. Bresland quoted two examples where ice formation had cracked pipework,

leading to a major escape of flammable gases and explosions. This is all the more relevant this year, as plant operators have had to quickly adapt to changing market demands in the current market conditions. Operators must ensure that management of change techniques are implemented when plant modifications are made and that winterisation programmes are always included. ‘Process Plant Safety and Security’ is one of the topics covered in a review article in the UK Process Engineering magazine this month. Another thought arises, as further extremes of winter (and summer) temperatures can be expected. Possibly more of the plant instrumentation with outside mounted electronics and displays will need to be reviewed to assess the operating temperature limits. While the electronic components these days probably are suitable for -40C, it’s not only diesel fuel that struggles at temperatures below -10C, liquid crystal displays will certainly stop operating in the cold. So more units may need protection, or even heated enclosures, with added sun shades to prevent cooking in the summer. Experience with home smoke alarms bleeping in the night shows that ordinary batteries pass out when the temperature drops a few degrees in winter. Even the advanced lithium batteries in digital cameras have limited life in the cold, so maybe even the new battery-powered sensors, such as those using wireless communications, will need careful watching as winter approaches.

What do you think the major process industry developments will be in 2010?

What do you think the major process industry developments will be in 2010? Many of the current trends and press releases show the main pre-occupation, which is to improve plant efficiency. Advanced vibration monitoring systems, condition monitoring tools, and interrogating the intelligence within installed field devices will continue to be important. More recently the emphasis has been on better monitoring to identify waste, or leakage, for example with compressed air monitoring and leakage detection systems from E+H, and the energy efficiency workshop being hosted by Atlas Copco at the Carbon Trust Technology Convention later in January.

It is likely that this drive to eliminate waste and leakage will develop further in 2010, with systems that actually turn off plant and equipment, shutting them down to eliminate even the power needed in the idle mode, when projected plant activity forecasts the opportunity. This is being built into automotive production plant systems currently, using Profibus and Ethernet communication systems, and could even be introduced with wireless controlled switching systems.

Legislation will continue to require new monitoring and control systems, as Sierra point out this week, with their measurement systems for methane and natural gas that allow US companies to monitor greenhouse gas emissions more exactly, as required from 2 January. Further emissions and air quality monitoring products will improve the capabilities of atmospheric effluent monitoring systems, as for example offered currently by Metrohm. Perhaps the biggest process developments will occur in this area, where public and government pressure, and finance, will lead to demonstrations of new processes that enable carbon dioxide capture, or storage, of power station effluent, primarily. The opportunity here for the development of a new large scale chemical or even biological process offers the most exciting new area for process engineering, in an area away from the petrochemical and oil/gas production processes that have been the major emphasis for the last 50 years. Possibly the last such large projects would have been nuclear power stations or flue gas desulphurization. The nuclear power industry produced the need for spent fuel reprocessing, and ironically the removal of the SO2 gases from power station effluent typically produced an equivalent amount of CO2, which we now need to eliminate. The next step forward is needed in both these areas, and needs a similar amount of investment too – which inevitably will come from us all, in the form of taxes!