P&IDs and Process Evolution

P&IDs and Process

P&IDs are par for the course in process engineering. Recently, I was poring over P&IDs and process planning for several projects. Each project was multinational, multicultural, and extremely complex. For one specialty chemical filtration application, part of a plant expansion in the southern United States, the engineering company is in the Southeast while the existing processes were from the Netherlands and Austria. In another project, with a similar scope, the plant expansion and the engineering company were both in the Northeast U.S., yet the current processes operate all throughout the UK.

As you can imagine, the piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) had many changes, each shown in a different color —the Christmas Trees of P&IDs.  There were extensive e-mail threads of comments and questions and, of course, questions/comments about the comments/questions. Plus, the projects required equally fun conference / video calls accounting for time zone differences, various languages and accents, and varied engineering cultures and operating philosophies. You’ve been in this situation too, I’ll bet.

The discussion, though, is invigorating. The idea exchange goes well beyond solid-liquid separation to encompass types of valves, types of pumps, where to put the pumps, how to handle the solids, operator safety, disposal, and on and on and on.  I even had a question about desalination and how to operate the DAF (Dissolved Air Flotation) units (that’s a topic for another blog).

Developing A New Process Path with P & IDs

After one of these calls, I had an “A-Ha” moment about the true value of our plentiful rounds with P&IDs and process. This is where the innovation happens. The P&IDs are idea development in action. This is where we, as I wrote in one of my earlier blogs, clear our path of unknowns.  

Anyone who’s read my blog consistently will recognize this is what is excites me about process engineering and all we do in this role. I’ve decided to take my own early 2019 advice and stretch myself in new directions with the birth of “P&ID-Perlmutter Idea Development” which you can find at perlmutter-ideadevelopment.com.

To me, these two sites work together like a candle filter functions better with the right filter sock. I’m excited to see how this idea develops, and eager to see what my readers, colleagues, and fellow bloggers will want to add and change and discuss (after all, it’s a P&IDs and process we’re talking about here).

Chemical Engineers & Our Superstitions

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Superstitions surround us: Touching wood? Carrying a rabbit’s foot? Collecting lucky pennies? Not stepping on any cracks? The list goes on and on. 

On one of my many chemical filtration business trips (many people have superstitions making flights safer), I read an interesting article on superstitions in the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) Magazine. Six luminaries from different walks of life — photography, acting, cooking, writing, directing and music — weighed in. But, alas, there were no chemical engineers.  So, I thought I’d remedy that in a blog. 

The WSJ article featured various thoughts on superstitions. Some defined superstitions based upon religion and culture passed on from many generations. Another outlined a simple ritual such as “when hearing the title of a Scottish play, one would run outside, turn around three times, then knock on the door to come back inside the theatre.” Then, there were “routines” to keep your days identical (i.e. the same workout, the same coffee, etc.). Others talked about superstitions as an attempt at “having control of what you can control.”

However, the one overriding theme, as photographer Gregory Crewdson stated, is that a belief in superstition “comes down to order” and wanting “to clear your path of unknowns.”  

Clearing the Path for Chemical Engineers

So, how does all that relate to chemical engineering?

If you accept Crewdson’s view, all chemical engineers are superstitious. We are always trying to clear our paths of the unknown. In every chemical filtration process, it is the unknowns that give us the most headaches. Why does the pump keep plugging? Why does the filtration system not produce a clean filtrate? Why is the process not meeting the production rates?  The questions we face are endless! But our job remains the same, we must “clear our paths of the unknown.”

Regular readers will know where I’m going with this…Test! Test! Test! Testing is our way of answering questions in controlled environments. To develop a process or troubleshoot an existing one, we need to ask the correct questions, think critically, walk around the plant, etc.  

Contact me with your superstitions for solving critical filtration and drying applications.  Let’s have fun exploring what we all do in chemical filtration.  

Busyness versus Business and Chemical Engineering Action

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My first blog of 2018 talked about the “speed” of the world and recommended slowing down and reflecting. Well, here’s some free chemical engineering advice as the year draws to a close: It’s important to take the time to review facts and data, analyze decisions, gather inspiration from many sources, and finally proceed with definite actions. Still, you’ll need to be ready to change, as things will come at you at “breakneck speed.”  

In my out-of-the-box way of thinking, I’m going to relate these ideas to the World Cup — Congratulations to France! During the big tournament of the big game in summer 2018, there was a lot of discussion about penalty kicks. 

Bradley Staats discussed them in the Wall Street Journal article “Don’t Simply Dive into Action:  Think.” He looked at various research sources and concluded that “the goalie’s best strategy may be not to move at all.”  At the same time, surveyed goalies have said that they would regret allowing a goal more if they stayed in the center (rather than diving left or right).  This impulse reflects an “action bias.” The idea that doing nothing could be the best strategy for goalies or businesses is seldom discussed.  

Action Bias in Chemical Engineering

chemical engineering advice
Image source

In the world of chemical engineering, when looking at a problem, we are all taught to gather more data, do more testing, investigate more research, get more sources, etc.  And yes, sometimes this is the best strategy when coming across a problem that is new to the plant or to the specific process.  However, there are many different thoughts on this topic from Sherlock Holmes who employs occasional silence and distancing for problem solving to Thomas Watson, longtime CEO of IBM who would tell his salespeople “the trouble with everyone is that we do not think enough…knowledge is the result of thought.”

So, what is the answer?  As we sit at our computers and study the data, we all debate with ourselves whether to take a short walk or brainstorm for 5 minutes.  As the title of the blog states, busyness does not lead to business or to learning.  So, as an engineer, I suggest the brainstorm approach and thinking.  For vendors and sales people too, the tendency is for action.  But, even for sales people, thinking and slowing down to develop the correct approach is critical to success.

My chemical engineering advice is to avoid acting just to show “action.” Instead, take some time to think.  We may have to change Notre Dame Football coach Frank Leahy’s quote to read instead: “when the going gets tough, the tough get thinking.”  Let me know your ideas.

Chemical Process Optimization needs Out of the Box Thinking

chemical process optimization
A continuous vacuum belt filter with 9.0-m2 filter area.

Loyal readers of this blog know how much I value innovation and creativity. So, you can’t be surprised that I want to share with you a chemical process optimization success story. We partnered with a client to develop an optimized filtration process for a zinc oxide product.

As discussed in a coauthored article for Chemical Processing, Madison Industries and BHS-Sonthofen Inc. worked together on laboratory and field pilot testing. Engineers from both firms showed creativity and “outside-the-box” thinking in looking at the process from new vantage points in their quest to find a better option than the installed batch filter press.

Our efforts led to the selection of continuous vacuum filtration. The continuous filter, which was installed in 2016, provides maximum filtration efficiency and improves product quality while increasing yield and reducing operating and maintenance costs.

chemical process optimization
Figure 1. Technology, based on fixed vacuum trays, features step-wise movement of filter media.

Case Background

Madison Industries, based in Old Bridge, N.J., supplies copper and zinc compounds such as copper sulfate, copper carbonate, zinc sulfate, zinc chloride, zinc orthophosphate and phosphoric acid as well as other chemical products containing copper and zinc. Applications include animal feed, water treatment, dairy farming, food and pharmaceutical processing, and pool and wood preservative chemicals, among others.

The Madison facility was using a plate-and-frame filter press to filter a zinc oxide slurry made from a mix of various zinc feedstocks. The solids were mixed with water to form a slurry of 20% solids and then filtered. The cake was bagged in 2,000-lb totes, moved to another area of the plant and reslurried in sulfuric acid for further processing.

Madison wanted to expand production and replace the present labor-intensive process with a continuous operation — this led to chemical process optimization.

Crucial Tests

BHS process engineers began laboratory evaluation of the process. Madison was open to all ideas and formed a team to brainstorm different approaches.

BHS conducted several weeks of testing and evaluated both pressure and vacuum filtration based upon the specific characteristics of the solids and slurries. The testing led to the following observations:

• Filtrate clarity: The most-appropriate filter cloth is a double-weave 12-micron polypropylene.
• Filtration rate: Vacuum filtration produced the maximum filtration flux rate at a cake thickness of 6 mm.
• Cake washing: Maximum displacement washing was achieved with wash ratios of 2.6:1.
• Cake moisture: Although not a critical parameter because the cake is reslurried, cake moisture is approximately 35%.

Based on its creative testing, BHS’s process engineers recommended continuous-indexing vacuum filtration as the optimum option.

Why Continuous Indexing

The BHS continuous-indexing vacuum belt filter provides for vacuum filtration, cake washing, pressing and drying of high solids slurries. The technology is based upon fixed vacuum trays, a continuously feeding slurry system and indexing or step-wise movement of the filter media (see Figure 1). In practical terms, the belt filter operates similarly to a series of Buchner funnels.

At each indexed belt position, washing and drying efficiencies are maximized with the stopped belt and the mechanism of plug flow for gases and liquids. Cake pressing and squeezing further enhance drying. Finally, the fixed trays allow for the mother liquor and the wash filtrates to be recovered individually and recirculated/recovered/reused for a more efficient operation. The design also can integrate steaming as well as counter-current washing.

Successful Switch

Madison and BHS installed the vacuum belt filter in 2016. The unit has met all product quality specifications. Madison has realized a 50% savings in wash liquids per batch as well as a reduction in labor and operating costs because the vacuum belt filter operation is fully automatic. Since the installation, Madison has optimized the operation, improving yields and minimizing costs.

The Madison and BHS collaboration illustrates a successful relationship between client and technology supplier. The BHS approach of lab and pilot testing, coupled with idea-generation, fosters identifying the optimal option for critical and difficult solid/liquid separations.

Juiced up about Baseball Science

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Those who have followed my blog already know some about my background. For instance, I am an avid baseball fan. But here’s a new fact…I have been playing baseball since I was 5 years old. In fact, when I was 12, I was coached by the famous musical band, The Tokens, whose biggest hit was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Needless to say, this was not a winning team. Success was always just “a win away, a win away…”

 

The Chemistry of Baseballs

With the playoffs and World Series looming, the controversy once again has arisen about the “juiced baseball.” This season the number of home runs per game has increased to 2.54 from 2.03. Hit Tracker Online provides us with all the stats and information on “how far it really went” for MLB games.

But what is really going on? There are many theories:

  • hotter temperatures due to global warming
  • strike zone changes
  • stronger and younger players
  • pitching changes.

If we focus on the data, which is what we do as chemical engineers, there are some other interesting ideas to consider.

One theory is based upon the drag coefficient (air resistance) of the ball, as discussed by Rob Arthur. His hypothesis is that the drag coefficient has decreased to 0.344 from 0.357. While this does not sound like much, it can add over five feet to the ball’s distance. This would be enough to increase the number of home runs by 10 – 15%.

Another theory by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman suggests an “air-ball revolution” meaning that players are swinging differently. Several MLB players have been in the news for focusing on hitting the ball harder in the air, and elevating it off the ground more.

 

Testing Baseball’s Stuff

Chemical & Engineering News also has weighed in on data from Rawlings, which has been the Major League Baseball (MLB) supplier for many years. Matt Davenport’s 26 June 2017 article Materials: What’s That Stuff? states the ball is the same and references the ball’s Coefficient of Restitution (COR) value, which has always been between 0.514 – 0.578. The COR refers to the ability of an object to bounce back to its original height when dropped from a certain height. The recognized standard for COR testing is an ASTM method F-1887.

Thus, why we’re seeing such a run on home runs remains a mystery and will be debated for a long time. My idea…let’s have a hot dog and a beer and share baseball science theories. As Ernie Banks said “It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Relating The Undoing Project to Unfiltered Thinking

filtration chemistry
Photo credit: Simon & His Camera via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

This summer I read The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. Lewis has also written Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Flash Boys — so maybe you’re familiar with his work. His 2016 book, with the subtitle “A Friendship that Changed Our Minds” introduces us to two Israeli psychologists whose work changed everything from medicine to investing and revealed the weirdness of the human mind. This is also the story of two men with different backgrounds collaborating to create new ideas and new theories.

In the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky changed our understanding of human judgment and decision-making. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics (Tversky would undoubtedly have won as well, if he hadn’t died of cancer several years earlier).

Kahneman and Tversky created the field of behavioral economics and showed how the human mind makes errors in judgement in uncertain situations. Their work led to the use of algorithms and big data gathering rather than relying on human intuition. Lewis’s book offers many examples of how this work is used today:

  • Index funds in the stock market
  • evidence-based medicine rather than “diagnosis from the gut”
  • sports such as basketball and baseball using algorithms to analyze players and draft choices
  • government decisions on tax policy, trade, etc. in the US, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Scandinavia and others.

Relating Undoing to Unfiltered

While the applications of Kahneman and Tversky’s thinking are very interesting, especially data analysis, the aspect that impacts my filtration chemistry blog readers is that of sample size. According to Lewis, the collaborators concluded that “in the search for scientific truths, [all scientists] were relying far more than they knew on chance…What’s more, because they had so much faith in the power of small samples, they tended to rationalize whatever they found in them.”

This realization, according to many in the field of measurement and statistics, was the duo’s stroke of genius. For example, a study of 40 subjects/topics gave only a 50% chance of accurately reflecting the answer while to have a 90% chance of being correct, the sample would need to be increased to over 130.

In our chemical engineering business, considering an appropriate sample is a critical point whether it’s with filtration testing, reaction chemistry, drying analysis, etc. Thinking about Kahneman and Tversky reminds us we all must remember to keep in mind our biases and get as large as sample as possible.

filtration chemistry

Innovative Thinking, Sustainability & Tequila

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Blue Agave Plantation. Photo credit: MaloMalverde via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to travel and do a lot of business in Mexico. I have learned a great deal not only about our field, but also about various tequila. Customers often have different favorites, and there’s always time to discuss the benefits of this alcoholic beverage made from blue agave plants.

Nevertheless, you’re not reading this blog to find out my favorite type of tequila (although I’m happy to discuss this if you want to drop me a line). So, you’re likely wondering how I’m going to link the drink to innovative thinking examples and sustainability (as the title suggested).

First, some background: the growth cycle of the agave plant used by Jose Cuervo Tequila is a minimum of seven years. Once harvested, the heart of the plant is roasted before the grinding and extracting of its juices for distillation. Jose Cuervo uses a portion of the remaining agave fibers as compost for its farms, and local artisans make crafts and agave paper from the remnants.

In an example of innovation, aiming at sustainability, Ford and Jose Cuervo have just announced a partnership to explore the use of agave fibers for bioplastics that can be used for certain car parts.

A typical Ford Motor vehicle has over 400 pounds of plastic parts. In 2000, the automaker began researching the use of sustainable materials in its vehicles. Today, the automaker uses eight sustainable-based materials in its vehicles including soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls.

Using the agave fibers in plastic would help to reduce the waste for Jose Cuervo as well as produce lighter-weight bioplastics to improve the efficiency of vehicles.

Agave fibers have unique mechanical properties as well as durability and aesthetic qualities which make them promising candidates. Researchers are testing the material’s durability and heat resistance for potential use in the vehicle’s interior and exterior components such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units and storage bins.

This partnership may have been first fueled by sharing some tequila, but it’s one of my favorite innovative thinking examples and is an interesting approach to sustainability. We engineers do this every day in our jobs. Let me know other ideas and examples to share!

2017 & Looking into the Future

Process management
Photo credit: alex mertzanis via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Welcome to 2017.

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable holiday season. Speaking of safety, several of my blogs in 2016 discussed safety in chemical plants, refineries and personally. Let’s all keep safety at the forefront for 2017 too!

In 2016, I also spent a great deal of time discussing my views of innovation from different vantage points including strawberries and surfing. Of course, none of these are in my realm of activities, but it just goes to show how innovation occurs, sometimes in areas not commonly thought about.

Finally, I wrote about my time at Washington University in St. Louis, Albany State in New York and John Belushi and the Blues Brothers. There are several other personal stories which hopefully you found interesting as well as my views on ethics, chemical engineering, and process management.

After all, my blog has now been up and running for over two years! While I’ve enjoyed writing these posts, it’s also been great to hear from my friends, colleagues, customers and others from all over the world.

Looking forward

2017 may be a turbulent year…but I have some suggestions.

Take Small Steps: When I wrote my book, the project manager at Elsevier told me that the Table of Contents was the most important part. By breaking the book into pieces — each chapter, section, paragraph — I only needed to write 1 – 2 pages. Then, before I knew it (well, maybe over one year later), I had completed 150 pages. I’ve tried to apply this perspective in other areas too — Take small steps and accomplish each step to reach your goal.

• Focus on the Benefits: Whether the task is at work (new process, new initiative or better time management), in the gym (longer run, more repetitions or a longer headstand), or with your family (this you can decide yourself), make sure that the small steps you take result in advantages and benefits to you or someone else.

• Develop “No Choice” Categories: What do I mean by this? There will be steps that you take which must happen for you to achieve the desired benefits. These steps are your “no choice” categories. But by looking at these as small steps as essential parts of reaching the long-term goal, you can better motivate to do what needs to be done.

I’ve already started thinking with excitement about 2017’s blog posts. Look forward to my thoughts on Ford Motor & Tequila, Famous Nathan’s Hot Dogs and another wide variety of topics. I also invite you to make suggestions! In fact, I’d welcome guest blogger contributions. Please let me know what interests you. I’d be happy to discuss it further.

7 Key Steps in Petrochemical Safety

petrochemical safety
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 in petrochemical safety.

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):

petrochemical 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 in Petrochemical Safety

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

Pertaining to Particle Size Analysis Methods

 

Particle size analysis methods
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 methods? 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 particle size analysis methods 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!”