7 Key Steps in PetChem Safety

industrial disaster
The Union Carbide factory now lies abandoned in Bhopal. Image source.

Attending the PetChem Technology Forum in Houston I learned from engineering, operating company, supplier and consultant industry experts. I was fortunate enough to be presenting on Filtration Technology for Removing Solid Contaminant Fines from Water Scrubbing, Clarifier Effluent and Grey Water. I discussed technologies, applications, case histories and troubleshooting.

Another of the presentations addressed safety and conducting safety audits. We all think we know about safety. Sometimes we’re overconfident — as when I told my 88 year-old father how to safely climb a ladder, and he proceeded not to talk with me for a day (but that’s another story).

In Houston I was learning from Robert J. Weber, the President/CEO and founder of PSRG, a global provider of process safety, risk management, process plant reliability, and comprehensive HSSE services for the hydrocarbon and chemical process industries.

Robert first covered lessons learned from industry incidents such as:

  • a cyclohexane release and explosion that killed 28 in Flixborough, UK
  • a loss of containment in a local Mexico City sewer system that led to over 650 fatalities
  • the “world’s worst industrial disaster” in Bhopal, India when a Union Carbide methyl isocyanate tank ruptured.

    industrial safety
    Industrial accident in 1976 Italy

He then related these to elements of process safety (as seen in this presentation slide):

process safety

Robert discussed what each company can do to improve safety including establishing a culture of safety (leadership and competency). He suggested clearly defined expectations and accountability along with Key Performance Indicators. Finally, he stressed continuous improvement and community outreach.

7 Key Steps

Over the course of the presentation and panel questions seven key steps in safety management were identified:

  1. Assign personnel for accountability
  2. Adopt a personalized company philosophy
  3. Learn about process safety
  4. Incorporate process safety into the business drivers
  5. Set achievable goals
  6. Track performance
  7. Revisit and improve on a continuous basis

This presentation was a great reminder of how essential it is to always be thinking about safety. As Sargent Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues would say:

Safety in Engineering

Importance of Good Professional Sense

Chemical Process Industry engineers don’t encounter ethical situations every day, fortunately. Yet, when we do, the decision-making is heavily weighted by our awareness of the importance of the potential safety, environmental and quality-control hazards associated with what we do.

engineers making tough choicesPhoto credit: CameliaTWU via Decorators Guru / CC BY-NC-ND

Chemical Engineering tackled the topic of Engineering Ethics IQ in a special discussion last year. They also sought the opinions and comments of readers regarding specific hypothetical cases in a survey aiming at discussing ethically charged situations.

The survey:

  • Questioned the ethics of using a miniscule amount of a poisonous additive to a product.
  • Considered whether or not to continue testing with a critical gasket potentially leaking.
  • Addressed proper reporting and handling of waste.
  • Covered insider information and vendor incentives.
  • Examined acknowledging responsibility.

I’ll be interested to see the magazine’s survey results. In the meantime, I was inspired to look back at the NSPE Code of Ethics that notes, “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.” The AIChE, too, strives to uphold and advance ethical thinking, reminding its members to use “their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.”

My thinking on this important topic was jogged on the golf course, as I mentioned previously, when I was thinking of the honesty of Brian Davis on the PGA Tour. Revisiting the coverage of that event for this blog, I came across an insightful New York Times opinion piece pointing out that Davis’s behavior highlighted “the refreshing contrast between golf and other sports.”

The columnist observed, “In other sports, players unabashedly claim to have (take your pick) made the catch, avoided the tag, cleanly blocked the shot, had both feet inbounds, etc., only to be overruled by officials or replay cameras.” Whereas, in 1925 golfer Bobby Jones shrugged off praise of his calling a similar penalty on himself by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

This is how we, as chemical process engineers, ought to think as well. That ethical action is not a choice, but the only way to respond. Pressures at work — be they related to time, profitability, or reputation — cannot diminish the fact that ethical decision-making is always good professional sense.

Ethical Engineers are Prepared

On the golf course recently, I was reminded of Brian Davis. Do you remember? In 2010, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself in tournament play. His violation, nudging a reed aside on the 18th, cost him $411,000 as he ultimately finished second to Jim Furyk.

process engineer problem solving
Photo credit: Tord Sollie via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Now, I haven’t come close to winning a major tournament — although I did earn “closest to the hole” in a Gas Processors Tournament in Madrid, Spain. Nevertheless, when I hit the links I assiduously keep track of my strokes — all of them — because it’s the right thing to do. Somehow this got me thinking of how doing the right thing in chemical process engineering can, in fact, prove as costly as Davis’s honorable action. Yet choosing the other, less-ethical path could cost human lives from say bacterial contamination or ignored safety procedures.

Karl Stephan, writing in Chemical Engineering, acknowledged sound ethics in our field demands “a large dose of technical know-how” as well as a sound ethical foundation when confronting “ethically charged questions.”

Texas State University’s Stephan may have been a Boy Scout as his suggestion for engineers is to “be prepared” to identify ethical problems with seven steps to better navigate the situation. I paraphrase here:

  1. Know what you believe. Ask yourself in advance what kind of situations you would be willing to risk your reputation or your job for.
  2. Recognize ethical problems. Take stock of your individual role and what could go wrong, go unreported, or cause harm to better understand the scope of your responsibility.
  3. Identify stakeholders. Having identified possible ethical problems, consider everyone who might be affected (whether if something is done or if a problem is ignored).
  4. Analyze interests. Take the time to anticipate each of those stakeholders interest in the various outcomes of an ethical decision.
  5. Examine alternatives. Weigh the possibilities such as doing nothing, doing nothing at least for a time, or acting immediately to determine reasonable courses of action.
  6. Execute decision. With all the thinking you’ve been doing, you should be in a position to implement a decision – even a difficult one.
  7. Document everything. Try and collect a paper trail of the entire process as soon as you are aware of an ethical issue. You will be better able to recall details if called upon if you have the complete, accurate information.

What I appreciate about Stephan’s approach is that he takes the abstraction of ethics and turns it into a process. That’s what I call knowing your audience. Ethics is anathema to engineers in a way. Not because we want to do whatever we want, without caring a whit for the consequences, but because it is not a hard science. Many of us enjoy the one right answer that engineering often represents, whereas ethics is all about ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, there can be no ambiguity in handling ethical situations in chemical process engineering. We must implement clear rules about what is ethical and actively seek to do the right thing — as Davis did. This is the only foundation upon which I will stand for generating revenue and building my and my company’s reputations.

Pertaining to Particle Size Analysis


Particle analysis
Photo credit: NASA Johnson via Remodel / CC BY-NC


When I say “Particle Size,” you say “Analysis.”

When I say “Particle Size,” you say _________.

Who says we can’t have fun with particle size analysis? I know BHS-Sonthofen’s latest A&SoF newsletter has some interesting reads on the topic. Focusing on particle size and shape and their impacts on solid-liquid separation, we share some current industry insights on the topic.

Drawing on resources from Mettler-Toledo and Micromeritics, we hope to prompt your thinking on different ways of approaching particle analysis. The permutations are endless of course as process engineers must address off-line and in-processes and how the particle size and shape impacts the filtration system designed to handle the specific solids.

Mettler-Toledo examines scientists combining offline particle size analyzers with in-process particle characterization instruments to optimize and improve processes.  Their white paper illustrates how this can help:

  • Obtain detailed process understanding by directly measuring changes to particle size and count as process parameters vary
  • Determine operating conditions required to deliver fit-for-purpose particles on a consistent basis
  • Monitor and correct process deviations during continuous or batch production
  • Avoid time delays and errors associated with sampling, preparation and offline analysis

Micromeritics, meanwhile, reminds us of the challenges of equivalent particle analysis with irregularly shaped particles and different measurement techniques. They note:

“Understanding what each particle size technique actually measures, how it performs the measurement, and how it transforms the quantity measured into equivalent spherical diameters are crucial when selecting the most appropriate particle sizing technique for your sample or application.”
Of course, I can’t help but mention my own discussion of this in chapter 6 of my Guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration. In keeping with my Sherlock Holmes-ian bent, I illustrate how the systems approach to process filtration and “not jumping to conclusions” should be the guiding principles when we troubleshoot issues of particle size distribution (PSD) changing from pilot to production scale and even during the production operation.

Want to learn more about how the Charlotte office of BHS sleuths out particle size solutions? Reach out and let me know. But when I holler, “particle size,” expect me to be waiting for you to come right back with “analysis!”


Cookies are yummy, but avoid cookie-cutters.

Photo credit: Amy Loves Yah / Source / CC BY

We can all agree that cookies are yummy. Cookie monster is not the only creature out there who loves to chow down on a tasty chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin (my favorite are Thin Mints).

What is not so good, though, is using a cookie-cutter approach to problem solving.

In filtration testing and scaling-up to commercial size, it’s important to not “jump to conclusions” that the familiar approach is going to work best.

Laboratory/bench top filtration testing is critical in the problem analysis, technology selection, and pilot and demonstration scale-up stages.

As I’ve blogged about, and discuss at length in my Practical Guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration, we can learn a lot from sleuths Holmes and Watson. They would argue it’s important to train yourself to be a better decision maker. Your best bet is to use checklists, formulas, and structured processes.

It’s also essential to train yourself to stop and repeat. Don’t succumb to certainty. Discuss your options with technology suppliers that can provide different filtration solutions. Partnering with suppliers with a proven track record in similar applications will shorten your technology scale-up cycle.

Ultimately, what matters are your premises (process definition, requirements and testing objectives) how the testing unwinds the crucial from the incidental (what is the critical process parameter) and ending up with a logical conclusion (optimum process filtration solution). With caution and clear thinking you can better manage the stress of a scale-up.

This blog marks the one year anniversary of “Perlmutter Unfiltered.”  I would like to thank everyone for their feedback and responses.  Let me know your ideas and thoughts; guest bloggers are always welcomed.

Build Your Library with Basics


With the advent of e-books and our ability to access archives of trade magazines online, it’s become easier for engineers to have ready access to a rich, professional library.  This is especially good if you had to complete some work during March Madness; hope you picked the winner in your brackets.  Let me know how you did.

Nevertheless, it’s a great idea to build a reference library all of your own. Dirk Willard, in a Chemical Processing article, suggests several key titles for a good start to a reference library. He includes:

  • Schweitzer’s Handbook of Separation Techniques for Chemical Engineers
  • Sinnott and Towler’s Coulson and Richardson’s Chemical Engineering Design
  • Walas’ Chemical Process Equipment: Selection and Design
  • Kister’s series of books on distillation
  • Lieberman’s A Working Guide to Process Engineering
  • Kletz’s series of books on process safety

He has several other suggestions as well and proposes scanning useful information from equipment brochures into pdf format to access them on the move.

But, do you know what’s missing? An essential guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration. It’s something that has long been absent from the offerings to engineers. That’s why I recently published a Practical Guide covering the basic principles and mechanisms of filtration to help engineers make the right filtration choices.

Solid-Liquid Filtration considers filtration testing including filter aids and filter media, types of filtration systems, selection of filtration systems and typical operating and troubleshooting approaches. This guide is intended as a framework for process engineers analyzing filtration for an operating bottleneck issue or a new process development problem.

For those who want to experience it, rather than read the book, I’d encourage you to sign up for one of our BHS Filtration workshops.

What are some essential titles you’d suggest I put in my own library? Tell me in the comments below.

Cloud Seeding and Vonnegut

BHS Filtration Experts
Image source: Len Radin / photo on flickr

I tend to perk up when I hear or read about cloud seeding. When I came across Amanda Little’s Business Week article about ice seeding clouds in India to avoid droughts, I even felt a little nostalgic.
Right there, in the middle of the article, she made mention of the invention of cloud seeding at GE in 1946. Among the scientists making that first snowstorm in a laboratory freezer was a mentor of mine, Bernard “Bernie” Vonnegut.

When he left GE, he became a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University at Albany, The State University of New York. That’s where I took his senior level environmental science class; it really had an impact on me. After the class, I decided I would go into environmental science and engineering and get my Master’s Degree at Washington University in St. Louis. I vividly remember ice seeding being one of the big reasons I got excited about the idea in the first place.

Bernie was a great guy, and if you wondered if he’s related to the author Kurt Vonnegut, the answer’s yes. In fact he and his brother Kurt both worked at GE and much of the research done by Bernie became background in Kurt’s books. Among them, the first book of Vonnegut’s that I read Cat’s Cradle (with its “Ice-9” plot twist).

People may think that engineering is its own fiefdom where geeky scientists do their thing with gadgets and gizmos, but I love these little reminders of the great overlap our work has with so many other important areas of life.

Little’s first-hand account of being onboard a plane over the farming region of Maharashtra in India and seeding cooperative clouds to make it rain, along with Vonnegut’s renowned novels, are examples of the ways in which technology and science make a difference in political and human interests too.

I encourage you to read Little’s article and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Also, I’d love to hear about your a-ha moment. Who was the professor or what was the project that got you interested in this expansively interesting subject of engineering?

Filtration Experts BHS
Image source: opacity / photo on flickr

Sleuthing CIP Process Solutions


For years, my focus as a process engineer has been thin-cake filtration, cake washing and drying technologies. I am continually engaged by the people I work with and the ongoing need to find new process solutions to problems.

There are always new challenges. Our latest BHS Sonthofen newsletter focused on practical solutions for solid-liquid separations in chemical and pharmaceutical applications. Particularly, this issue of Art and Science of Filtration, looked at new clean-in-place (CIP) challenges.

Our friends at CH2M and EI Associates collaborated to examine large-scale fermentation systems in biochemical and biopharmaceutical settings. In discussing designing new organisms to target desired chemical products, they addressed several challenges with genetically modified microorganisms (GMM):

  • GMM are not, typically, designed to be robust and can find competition with natural microorganisms difficult.
  • GMM are a new creation and can exhibit unforeseen and undesirable traits.
  • Incorporating extensive CIP and sterilize-in-place (SIP) systems to prevent contamination is critical.

In discussing considerations for CIP, the authors focused on sequence, system configuration, equipment sizing, tank and piping design considerations, and more. That’s before they even examined the SIP considerations. It’s not for everyone, but I love trying to fit together the many puzzle pieces to make the process work for our clients.

Also in our newsletter, we shared a CIP presentation from my colleague Tim Ochel. He addresses influencing factors in CIP (velocity, temperature, chemicals, time and technology) and how BHS Filtration meets the need. For instance, BHS’ Rotary Pressure Filter (RPF) is menacing in transforming materials into value. It can handle filtration and washing, multi-step counter-current cake washing, and drying too. He demonstrates how our RPF is successful in applications where optimum cleaning effectiveness, cGMP compliance and contained product handling are required.


There’s a lot to think about when it comes to CIP in pharma. Another BHS article has talked about the advantages of continuous filtration for pharmaceutical manufacturing. We’re determined at BHS to keep abreast of process design strategy trends to make sure our clients are safe and streamlined while they work to save their customers from whatever ails them.


Your next idea could come from a Whopper.

Any process engineer with a love for creativity will appreciate this Business Week article about The DNA of Strawberries.

The article features Phil Stewart, a fruit breeder for Driscoll’s (“the largest player in the $5.6 billion U.S. berry market,” according to Business Week). Stewart spent about two years regularly visiting a wild strawberry plant near a Burger King in Wastonville, California. When the vigorous plant finally bore fruit, Stewart was able to taste the deliciousness of its small berries.

Strawberry Solution
Photo credit: zuiko12 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

What he noticed in this sidewalk strawberry plant was a strong will to survive. It was not being carefully tended with water and chemicals to insure optimum growth. And Stewart, in the kind of open-minded thinking that makes me happy, decided to pluck one of the berries and transport it five miles down the road to where he runs Driscoll’s strawberry breeding program trying to create the next, best strawberry.

In Driscoll’s test fields rows of raised beds are observed, and berry plants are recorded, tested and bred with close attention to qualities such as flavor, size, color, and firmness. Two seedlings grown from the original plant were crossed with other types of strawberry, but the taste was marred by extreme seediness and Stewart dropped the strain after two generations.

That’s not the happy ending you were looking for, right? But whether or not he found the best berry at a Burger King isn’t the important part here. What I admire is Stewart’s willingness to look everywhere (even among the Whopper wrappers) for new answers to the breeding problems he encounters every day. He has so many options to consider in berry genetics, he told BusinessWeek, “I tend to have to be careful not to be distracted by all the cool stuff.”

But isn’t that the lot of creative minds and the likes of us process engineers? There are many cool pathways we can consider in deciding the optimum approach. We don’t want to wallow in rabbit holes, but if we aren’t willing to venture in new directions progress can’t be made.

If you have a process engineering problem for me to tackle, let me know. Like Sherlock Holmes, I’m always ready for a new case and ready to engineer answers!

Scaling Upwards & Onwards

Next weekend is Super Bowl Sunday.  Let me know who you are picking and what type of food you are serving.  I will have my menu posted next month.

Technology is always changing. That is part of what makes our job so interesting. Keeping up with new processes helps us to stay on our toes.

The AICHE recently focused a special section on Scaling Up Bioenergy Technologies. Author David Edwards noted that, “the approach developed for the traditional chemical process industries (CPI) projects must be modified to account for the challenges (changes) in the fluids and solids for bioenergy (biochemical) processes.”

We’ve experienced this need to modify our approach at BHS-Sonthofen in lab testing, pilot testing, and scaling up for continuous biochemical processes. We’ve worked to develop optimum continuous pressure and vacuum filtration technologies for biochemical applications.


The important thing was to test, test, test. Yes, I’ve written that before. But Edwards would agree. He suggested skipping a step in a CPI process is possible if there’s sufficient data beforehand, but you simply can’t with biochemical processes.

It’s true. The process is too new. You need to get a full understanding of what you’re dealing with throughout the process to truly make these new technologies work. Good luck. Let me know if I can help.