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A new era for integrity monitoring

Oilfield Technology,

The precipitous drop in the price of crude oil has demonstrated the complex interplay of economic and political pressures that govern the oil industry. With so many uncontrollable factors at play, the business of refining is a delicate balance between profit and loss. With margins remaining extremely volatile, refiners must strike a careful balance to adapt to short-term, high-margin opportunities that arise.

It is widely known and understood that the oil and gas industry is cyclical. History has shown us that those that emerged strongest from the previous downturn were those who had adopted innovative technologies and methodologies in both upstream and downstream operations. But despite the pressures of the current environment, the downstream oil industry is yet to fully embrace asset integrity data as a means to drive decision making, optimise operations and maximise profitability.

Contrast this with other hazardous industries – take aviation for example – where engine performance is continually tracked by advanced on-board sensors and monitored by experts in real time at remote diagnostic centres. Equipment is serviced on a rigid, fixed cycle according to flying hours and any performance deviation results in proactive preventive maintenance activity at the earliest available opportunity.

There is no less risk associated with refining, yet the sector is still to adopt a robust, standardised approach to the collection and application of asset integrity data. Operators are missing a vital opportunity to gather real time intelligence to optimise the operation of their assets.

Doing more with less

In today’s lower for longer environment ‘doing more with less' is the mantra of the moment, with organisations focused on extracting maximum value from existing assets. With reduced financial and human resources at their disposal, companies are facing significant and opposing pressures to improve operational efficiencies and optimise production, while maintaining safe operations – all with fewer people to carry out the work. This is creating new integrity-related challenges for downstream operators:

  • Leaner operations teams all have more work to do and more challenges to deal with – and asset integrity is no exception. Stretched inspection and integrity management personnel are spending more time in the field collecting data – often using old-fashioned and outdated technologies. This is leaving little time for identifying and mitigating potential problems before they become major issues.
  • For many operators, the flexibility to adjust to short-term local market conditions offers the best chance of maintaining – or even increasing – achieved profit. However, these adjustments often bring unknown or unforeseen corrosion risks to the plant. Pushing an asset’s safe operating envelope requires a full understanding of the plant in question. Making decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information can have catastrophic consequences.
  • Opportunity crudes can still add value to those refiners whose geographic location means that they are available even though the price differential between high-end and low-quality feedstocks has narrowed with the overall reduction in crude price. However, this drive towards a responsive crude market brings its own challenges as cheaper feedstocks are usually lower quality and more corrosive.
  • Without proactive integrity monitoring, refiners are left open to increased probability of unplanned shutdowns, loss of hydrocarbon containment or other large-scale incidents – all of which carry significant safety, financial, and reputational risks.

    Technology and data that can deliver real time insight and, most importantly, actionable information, is needed if operators are to achieve accurate decision-making that delivers desired outcomes.

    Current lack of actionable integrity data

    There are several long-established approaches to understanding the integrity of the refinery plant. They are largely centred on manual ultrasonic inspection in combination with some more advanced measurement techniques used for very specific, localised applications – often involving the need to insert a probe into the hydrocarbon stream.

    The manual intensity of this approach limits the frequency at which inspections can take place – generally from every one to five yr – to measure the level of corrosion occurring across an asset over a given period of time. 90% of corrosion damage occurs in just 10% of operational time. Thus, manually acquired measurements are simply too intermittent to allow refineries to accurately calculate corrosion rates – which can vary significantly in response to normal process changes or the processing of new crude types.

    Reliance on manual measurements also yields poor quality data, limiting the potential to completely understand the underlying root cause(s) of corrosion, so that mitigating action can be taken. Furthermore, manual inspections or replacement of expired intrusive probes, carry inherent safety risk and high associated access cost. These approaches may also require shutting down parts of the plant to allow inspections to take place – temporarily lowering capacity or limiting the times where measurement is even possible.

    Information is power

    The good news for refiners is that the technology for continuous integrity monitoring already exists and has been extensively proven within both the upstream and downstream oil and gas industry – with transformational effects.

    Automated sensors fixed permanently – but non-intrusively – to strategic points in the infrastructure can take continuous, robust measurements of equipment wall thickness. Instead of relying on inspection teams to take manual measurements periodically, these permanently mounted sensors wirelessly deliver data to an asset’s integrity management team for analysis at-desk. The sensors must be specifically designed for use in the downstream environment – being intrinsically safe for use in hazardous areas and being able to take online measurements from metalwork that could be operating at temperatures up to 600°C (1100°F).

    With the right monitoring system in place, there is no need for guess work. Data quality is improved, since the rate of measurement allows operators to see the wall thickness of equipment changing in real time. With the right quality and frequency of data providing an up–to-date and accurate picture of the integrity of a given asset, as well as an understanding of how it is coping with the demands placed upon it, operators can begin to make better informed operational decisions. Companies can see how the infrastructure responds to all the unpredictable and uncontrollable variables at work within the downstream environment and take appropriate, mitigating action.

    Downstream players can see exactly which feedstocks are the most corrosive, where and when the damage occurs and which corrosion mitigation strategies are most effective. Furthermore, with the right technology, they can access these insights in real time and make better informed decisions – minimising the risk of unplanned shutdowns and affording better planned maintenance shutdowns.

    Automated monitoring of asset integrity combined with appropriate data analysis also gives operators the confidence to take profit-enhancing operational decisions, such as feedstock purchasing choices or process adjustments, safe in the knowledge that they are monitoring the potentially increased corrosion risk – without compromising the safety of the asset.

    It remains to be seen how long this ‘lower for longer’ period will last, but by embracing this type of innovative technology and the quality and frequency of data it delivers, operators will be better positioned to use asset integrity knowledge and insights as a means to drive profitability, safety and reliability – and secure their competitive advantage.

    Edited from an article by Jake Davies, Permasense

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