Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Live Process Flow Diagrams

The first document you have on a project is typically a process flow diagram (PFD). The PFD defines the process. It is the ultimate source of information and sets the plant performance and design. It is interesting to me that we really don’t know how well existing operations match the PFD. When I have posed the question of what is really the mass flow, pressure, temperature, and density of a plant stream to university students and even seasoned engineers in industry, the usual reply is that the stream conditions are what is shown in the PFD. As humans we are naturally optimistic and want to think everything is as believed and stated. As engineers we are accustomed to numbers being accurate to several significant figures. Alas, if you had the knowledge of what is really going in the process there would be a rude awakening. While uncomfortable, the awareness leads to better process control improvements.

In the PFD and in chemical engineering courses, the plant is assumed to be at steady state. Of course this does not work for batch processes. Less obvious is that it doesn’t work well for continuous processes with merging and diverging trains of equipment and recycle streams. Even if a plant was at steady state, I doubt it would be within 10% of the PFD design conditions on all of the PFD process variables due to non ideal and unknown effects in the process calculations or simulations that generated the PFD. Maybe things have changed a lot, but in my days working at a large chemical company, the process engineers manually updated personalized spreadsheets that attempted to close the material and energy balances (unless we are talking about nuclear reactions, energy and mass are conserved – neither created or destroyed).

What if a plant had a live online PFD? What if we had live online material and energy balances? What if we had temperature, pressure, mass flow, and inferential measurements of the composition in every important process stream?

Coriolis flowmeters offer a true mass flow measurement that does not depend upon composition, density, velocity profile, Reynolds number, or viscosity. The physics of the measurement afford a rangeability and accuracy that is unexcelled (for an excellent perspective see the article by Peter Ginn “It’s the Physics!”, InTech, Feb 1996). Coriolis also provides a direct density measurement, a tube temperature measurement, and when coupled with an accurate differential pressure transmitter (DP) for viscous fluids, an inferential viscosity measurement. In the last couple of years, major improvements have been made in Coriolis technology. For example, Coriolis meters can measure two phase flow and can infer void fraction. Meter sizes can be as small as 2 millimeters making them ideal for labs and pilot plants. For slurries and clingy sticky fluids, straight tubes and higher velocities can be used to prevent coatings and accumulation of material. Coriolis meters can potentially provide more accurate batch charges than weigh tanks because Coriolis meters retain a better long term installed accuracy than load cells since Coriolis does not suffer from drift or installation effects. For more information on Coriolis see the EssentialBookCoriolisExcerpt.pdf.pdf from the new ISA book Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements

When a Coriolis meter is put on a stream, the only process variable missing for a live online PFD is pressure, which could be easily added via a wireless pressure transmitter. For streams with acids and bases, wireless conductivity and pH transmitters could provide additional information on stream composition. For example, in absorbers for CO2 capture, wireless pH and conductivity measurements in concert with a Coriolis density and temperature measurement can provide inferential measurements of solvent concentration and CO2 loading important for optimizing absorber flow distribution.

There is a lot of talk about online process metrics but as far as I can see, what is done is loop metrics principally on process variability. A live PFD would enable online process efficiency metrics (e.g. yield) for each unit operation besides tighter mass balances. The stream variables would also lead to better data analytics and prediction of product quality.