Could electrification decarbonise petrochemical refining?

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand, and almost one-fifth of global energy consumption – meaning the ways used to produce and deliver it are consequential in terms of emissions reduction.

With that in mind, efforts are being made to supply the tools and technologies that will provide ways for energy companies and industrial manufacturers to lower the carbon footprint of their thermal processes to make a significant contribution to the global energy transition.

The electrification of heating devices in industry could play a big role in efforts to decarbonise the global energy system, providing a low-carbon alternative to the fossil fuels that have traditionally been used to run intensive thermal processes.

Big shoes to fill

Petrochemical processes have traditionally been heated with fossil fuels, but pressure is building to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and advance long-term decarbonisation goals. Fossil fuel-heated processes leave big shoes to fill when it comes to thermal processes, so electric process heaters often raise two big questions: how big can an electric heater be? And what is required to maintain proper control of large electric heaters? Here, Dennis Long, chief system designer at industrial electric equipment manufacturer Watlow, answers these questions and argues why opting for electric is crucial.

The technology behind process heaters has changed dramatically in the last ten years. This is good news for the industry, as electric heaters must be able to provide the same or improved performance that petrochemical engineers have come to expect from fossil fuel-powered heaters.

Electric process heaters versus fossil fuel burning heaters

To even consider replacing fossil fuel-burning heaters, we need to have a clear understanding of the current capabilities of electric process heaters. For instance, replacement does not make sense if electric heaters don’t come with the size and power required to heat processes that currently depend on fossil fuels. Many of those processes would require larger electric heaters well above the common one-megawatt (MW) variety such as fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) heaters that require between 150 to 200 MW of power.

With equipment of this size, a single vessel can have two heat exchanger bundles. Such a setup can produce a single process vessel with a 15 MW duty rating or more. The few suppliers providing electric heaters at this scale can raise or lower the duty rating as technical requirements dictate. This kind of size and power presents a viable alternative for operations currently fired by fossil fuels.

Besides reducing the use of fossil fuels, electric heaters and heat exchangers have other well-documented advantages including less thermal lag, safer operation due to no fossil fuels to burn or combust and smaller overall footprint.

Maintaining control

Most engineers have never seen electric process heaters and heat exchangers of these sizes or capabilities. So, naturally, some of the most common questions about larger process heaters have to do with control, including what additional elements are needed to ramp up the heater and how that affects the existing electrical system.

Just because larger electric heaters have not traditionally been used to heat all processes in the petrochemical industry does not mean that the technology is untested. In fact, it’s far from it.

Field-proven power switching devices have been used for low voltage electric process heaters and electric medium voltage motors across industries for years, and the ability to control voltage is well established.

Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) bring heaters online in ways that do not cause problems for other devices connected to the same power source. The heater and controller are part of one closed-loop system, which streamlines integration and yields more control over the entire system. This technology’s tried and true nature in other applications reduces the risk for petrochemical process heating.

New tech driving the energy transition

It’s worth considering some of the technologies that make electric process heaters and heat exchangers promising candidates for replacing traditional heaters. Heaters with Continuous Helical Flow (CHF) technology are playing a critical role in making large electric process heaters more robust and economical.

CHF ensures the baffles with the heater do not exist as discrete elements, but rather as a single continuous spiral winding around the interior of the shell side of the heater. This forces the flow to be rotational and helical, resulting in an even better heat transfer coefficient per unit pressure drop. This means heaters with CHF technology such as Watlow’s HELIMAX® heat exchanger, do not have dead zones or areas with insufficient flow. As there are no disruptions to flow, fewer hotspots can develop, subsequently reducing fouling rates.

A single removable HELIMAX bundle can supply up to five megawatts of power duty range, even with a smaller footprint, than fuel-based heat exchangers. Combine this efficiency with the reduced need for maintenance to address coking, and you have a product that increases productivity even as it contributes to decarbonisation efforts.

An improved heat-transfer rate also means users can often operate lower sheath temperatures, potentially improving the longevity of the equipment being used due to reduced temperature stress.

Not only can this improve the lifetime of industrial heating equipment, it can make its own contribution to sustainability goals by lowering the overall amount of energy required for thermal processes.

According to IEA analysts: “End-use efficiency, through the use of modern equipment, improved insulation or heat recovery, can reduce final demand before the heat is even generated.

“Often, limiting overall heat requirements is the first strategy adopted, before taking actions to decarbonise remaining heat use.”

Breaking down barriers

It is also crucial to have fast, reliable control systems for all larger, modern heat exchangers, especially in petroleum processing, where errors can be extremely costly. Engineers are now beginning to realise two things. Firstly, there are far more opportunities to use electric process heating systems with far fewer size constraints than energy and environmental engineers previously imagined and secondly, the control of these megawatt size heating systems is demonstrated with precise control of process and skin temperatures.

The industry must break down barriers towards energy transition to provide clean, efficient and reliable ways to electrify processes traditionally heated with fossil fuels. Electrifying process heating systems is one of the easiest ways to progress towards climate action goals without interrupting productivity or profitability.



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