4 Fundamentals of Processing Plant Debottlenecking

Process debottlenecking is most process engineer’s primary job. Getting extra production or better fuel efficiency is a never-ending goal, and one which gives many rewards. Every processing plant is different, and the ability to improve has numerous different possible approaches, however they all come down to 4 different fundamentals - repair, optimization, upgrading, and expansions. Which option is the most appropriate depends on a lot of factors, such as current plant condition, and availability of capital funding.

The first step in any debottlenecking project is to identify not only the current process limits but also future bottlenecks, which can include:

  • Hydraulic limit
  • Pumping capacity
  • Utilities - steam, power, water
  • Major process equipment
  • Equipment downtime and availability

Usually the plant limit can be easily identified - it is simply the reason that the target production rate cannot be achieved.

Once the limits have been identified, and often there are more than one, solutions can be developed.

1. Replace/Repair

The first step is to bring equipment back up to its original design capacity. This is often the case in older processing plants where equipment has degraded in performance over many years if it has not been properly maintained.

Improving equipment reliability will always bring rewards. Major equipment is usually maintained appropriately, but the ancillary equipment that is required to run optimally may be neglected.

  • Scale buildup, fouling restrictions
  • Equipment downtime, reliability, availability
  • Old equipment
  • Equipment failure

2. Optimize

The next most common form of process debottlenecking is through optimization. Is the problem really a lack of boiler capacity resulting in insufficiency quantity of steam or is the problem an inefficient use of the steam that is produced?

The average processing plant production rate can often be increased just be removing the ‘troughs’ or special events which cause downtime or loss of production.

Improving control logic and philosophies is another way to improve performance. It is not possible for an operator to run their area perfectly, particularly when there are other priorities distracting them. Optimizing the control logic so that certain functions are performed perfectly every time will result in significant gains over time.

  • Changing operating practices - improve washing efficiency, reduce handover time
  • Speed up pumps, conveyers, blowers
  • Introduce specialty chemicals to improve performance
  • More advanced control systems

3. Upgrade

Requiring a lot more funding than the first 2 options is through upgrading the existing equipment. If all the equipment is run as per or better than design, and has been heavily optimized, then the next possibility is to upgrade the bottleneck.

  • Install additional or large capacity equipment
  • Install additional or larger capacity pipe work

4. Expand

The most expensive form of debottlenecking is a full plant expansion. This can be through expanding the plant by duplicating the existing design or using different technology. Expansions require a huge amount of capital expenditure and design as well as construction, and commissioning.

  • Build additional production trains
  • Build additional process plants

What Next?

Eliminating one bottleneck will inevitably create another. Installing an addition pump will generally not increase total plant capacity by the same amount as other equipment cannot handle the increased flow.

There will always be another limit.

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