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a report by

Reactor Services International Inc.

Back in the early 1960s, refinery and chemical processes were

service, particularly in their reformer units. By the late sixties, there

becoming more complex. The changing complexity required catalysts

were three companies providing such services located in California,

capable of providing greater yields while operating under more severe

Tennessee and Texas.

Technology & Services

History of Catalyst Handling

conditions. The severity of the production runs caused the reactor units
to change with greater frequency. These more expensive catalysts were

Removing and screening the catalyst quickly and efficiently became

often re-usable, but required careful handling. The traditional

only a part of the total picture. Improvement was directed toward more

programme during a shutdown and after regeneration, was to dump

efficient loading systems. One design lifted two drums of material up

the catalyst into the bucket on a front-end loader and take it to another

an oilfield drilling rig mast, and another was a telescoping conveyor

site for screening by hand. It was important to treat the catalyst gently

that elevated to an angle of 60° and ‘conveyed’ material from a

because of its friability. Separating the broken chips and fines from the

hopper, at a little above ground level to a height of about 40 feet.

full or larger size catalyst particles and the inert balls required special

Along came flow bins, therefore temporary storage of screened

material handling systems. Some plants did not have this equipment.

catalyst was improved. Cranes or cherry pickers lifting the flow bins

Others acquired various types of equipment, including screeners, to

then became the standard method for loading reactors.

perform the task. Unfortunately, plant personnel with experience and
knowledge about operating this equipment were often needed

Loading catalyst into tubular reactors such as hydrogen furnaces,

elsewhere. Also, much of the equipment sat unattended for several

ethylene oxide (EO) reactors and small diameter tubes required

months and often needed repairs.

different techniques and equipment such as the plastic sock method
for loading hydrogen furnace tubes, or multi-tube loader used for

One small contractor, based in Alvin, Texas, which performed various

several small diameter tubular reactors.

contract services for one of the local plants recognized a need to improve
this system. They built a system with specialized components that would

Soon, refiners were finding the need to change catalyst more

operate efficiently and provide the customer with a clean, perfectly sized

frequently and downtime was critical. Each day that could be saved

catalyst for re-use in the process units. The contractor convinced the

meant significant savings in lost production costs. Therefore, ways

customer to allow the catalyst to be taken, after carefully removing and

were sought to minimize downtime. One way to minimize downtime

drumming, to their facility for proper screening and sizing.

was to purge the units with nitrogen and dump the catalyst
un-regenerated. Another way was to dump the catalyst saturated with

After about a year of operation, it became apparent that a mobile unit

light oil. The light oil method had remaining residue, which was often

would be more efficient. The contractor used the services of Merlin G

more than half the bed and had to be flushed out with water, thus

Hoiseth, PE, a contract engineer, to design and build a self-contained

destroying the catalyst. Purging the units with nitrogen allowed the

mobile screening machine with dust collection capabilities. The result

catalyst to be regenerated exsitu if kept in an oxygen-free container.

was the patented Soft-Flow Catalyst Screener. This unit was
demonstrated to several more plants and soon was used throughout

Personal safety was of primary concern when considering the nitrogen

the industry. The new screener set a standard by which all screening

purge dump. Multibed reactors, such as hydro-crackers, posed a

results were measured.

greater problem when dumping and often required workers to enter
the vessel to unplug the internal dump tubes.

Along with the need to screen the catalyst, was also the need to
remove it from reactors easily. There was the need for the design of a

Whether or not the catalyst was wet with oil or water, it might

self-contained vacuuming system with an air/material separation

contain fluorides, might be coked and pyrophoric, or there might

chamber (cyclone), dust collector and an engine driven vacuum pump.

have been a formation of carbonyls. With all these possibilities, Shell

This original trailer mounted unit proved useful, but cumbersome and

Oil requested better equipment and techniques for personnel

difficult to maneuver around a plant. A modified design such as the

working in such conditions.

Supersucker followed and was known as the forerunner to today’s
mobile vacuuming system.

Since resources were limited, the Bendix Corporation, who designed
equipment for the space programme, was contracted to design and

Catalyst screening – sieving, sifting or shaking, depending on which

build the breathing apparatus. The criteria was to have a hard hat

industry you were in – became a necessity for most process units.

helmet that could be locked on to the worker to prevent it from being

Sulphuric acid converters required the dust and chips to be removed,

removed. With redundant air supplies controlled through a console and

no less than once a year. Gas processing plants had a need to do the

monitored by an operator, the worker could safely perform his duties.

same for their dryers. Also, more refinery units needed such a

Once the equipment was built, Shell decided to sell the system to a



and natural and synthetic gas. each with its own unique hydrocarbons. time now. Furthermore. and respective expectations fully understood. what is the critical Health (NIOSH). (RSII) a company based in preparations? Alvin. manufactured catalysts and it is evident that the learning curve for new technologies has been steep. the console was totally air operated without • What work area will be co-ordinated with other contractors? dependence on electrical components such as alarm indicators. path?) • Are there any repairs to the reactor or its internals? RSII and a few operators are also to be credited with developing some • What is the loading method (dense or sock)? innovative catalyst handling ideas. etc. contractors are familiar with reactor designs associated with exsitu catalyst regeneration. the term used when workers performed catalyst handling functions in reactors while being purged with nitrogen. down. No scheduled.119). In addition. Occupational Safety and Health Organisation commercialize the performance of work in a nitrogen or immediately (OSHA 1910. The technology itself is always evolving. This • What utilities are available? new system was the Supplied Air Monitoring System® (SAMS) and • Who is to dispose of the spent catalyst? was approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and • How much time allotted for the turnaround? (i.History of Catalyst Handling company called Alien Atmospheres. Improving the industry’s The contractor’s involvement begins with the planning of the shut- performance in these areas is a vital goal.e. • What are the unit operating conditions prior to shutdown (abnormal pressure drop. the push for productivity. assurance of the worker’s personal safety and an increased need for Likewise. the safety department and others should be well defined productivity and quicker turnaround. which is a method of loading catalyst. co-ordination with the maintenance doubt. Texas redesigned the ‘life support system’ by modularizing the • Is the catalyst un-regenerated or regenerated? system so that each worker had his/her own primary and secondary • What is the physical design of the reactor? console. and • training the workers in the procedures of performing work under such conditions as well as emergency rescue operations. Safety. predominant focus of most of the industry’s management personnel. is the catalyst industries primary emphasis. For example. In industrial hygiene. temperature excursions. the particular processes. and more safety! The biggest challenge today is wisely Others associated with the monitoring of this job might be the dealing with concerns about protecting workers and the environment. In this meeting. Process Safety Management has become the dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment. gained Experienced contractors must be familiar with processes ranging from acceptance very slowly. Catalyst Oriented • How will the catalyst be packaged? Packing® (COP).)? • What was the length of the run or last change-out? • What is the type of catalyst in the reactor? • What are the shutdown procedures and vessel cool-down In 1976. almost all of the catalyst- Furthermore. responsibility to keep up with ‘what’s new’. independent consoles and one tertiary). many minds have been concerned about attaining higher department. Reactor Service International. various contractors involved. Those who succeed in this business accept The maintenance department must provide the necessary piping and the above as given and budget the resources to keep up with new blinding to accomplish the shut-down/cool-down procedures. a multi-tube loading device for loading tubular reactors and an electronic magnetic Once the contractor has been awarded the job.. safety. such thoughts are addressed. procedures in order to accomplish an effective removal of ammonia and sulphuric acid manufacturing. • communicating continuously with all the crew. the engineering and inspection departments. myriad The operations department must provide the shutdown and cool-down processes in the chemical industry. the cost of doing business goes up when worker 2 safety and environmental impacts are ignored. What’s Really New in Catalyst Handling Today? Safety. The bigger challenge in the present business climate is keeping up with ‘what’s new’ in government regulations while continuing to meet The safety department will be concerned about the activities of the client expectations. who became the first company to The current situation. technologies as they appear. prevent the generation of carbonyl gases and effectively requirements. In dealing with the hydroprocessing units. Inert entry. • locking the helmet on to prevent removal in case of panic. particularly the inert entry involvement by the contractor. There are many types of refinery processing units. Assurance of the safety of workers was achieved by: Pre-Job/Pre-Bid Considerations The bidding contractor has a number of considerations to make when • demonstrating that supplied air to the ‘respirator’ would be provided by three independent sources (two monitored from presenting a proposal for changing catalyst. The following is an explanation of job parameters for the removal of un-regenerated Professionals in the catalyst handling industry have a challenging catalyst in a hydro-processing unit. The pre-job meeting will determine the interfacing requirements HYDROCARBON WORLD 2007 . they must organize the logistics of several contractors for handling techniques in use today have been well established for some the turnaround. Add to this over a thousand different designs of cool the vessel without metallurgical damage. Two of the factors influencing its viability were those found in a refinery to those found in a petrochemical plant. a pre-job meeting is separator for removing trash iron from catalyst as it is dumped. Inc.

Such is the case when reactors sufficient nitrogen purge will prevent this occurrence. With these steps in place you are sure to have success chemical. a checklist re-circulated nitrogen is entering the reactor. it is safer to work where hydrocarbons meet the air. The It is important to understand that the high LEL inside a nitrogen-purged correct place for measuring LEL is at the man-way opening. Dumping into large containers. Monitoring of the gases in and around the reactor openings. i. If screening of the catalyst is required. The shut-down procedure involves a hot hydrogen strip. carbon monoxide. the LEL should be continuously observed at the man-way reactor must contain a continuous purge of nitrogen and the exhaust opening and oxygen content should be monitored inside the reactor. Since. quite often a catalyst change-out is on the ‘critical ignitable when mixed with as little as 7% oxygen. removal of the catalyst must be the primary concern. Some hydrocarbons are allotted time.History of Catalyst Handling with other contractors and the various plant departments. the way opening is satisfactory and entry into the reactor is permissible. even if the catalyst has been wetted with oil or an oil/chemical mixture. Many procedures have parameters between 0 and 5% LEL. a possibility exists danger of fire. If the reactor is purged with either the entire bed of catalyst or the residual ‘angle of repose’. proper shut-down procedures and a that hydrocarbons can invade the space. Removal important regardless of the type of shut-down procedure. The places where the oxygen content is monitored is throughout the vessel as well as where the personnel are working or where the Prior to starting the dumping/vacuuming procedure. If there are substantial in an environment that can be made inert and maintained inert. In a hydrocarbons present in the corresponding effluent gas there is a confined space where air is the primary environment. such as flow bins. is Once the predetermined percent of the LEL measured at the man- generally the quickest. oxygen levels inside the vessel and (LEL) is excessive. may be by either dumping from the bottom/side dump nozzles or by vacuuming. However. but rather the planning. the nitrogen. The determine the presence of hydrogen sulphide. In fact. It is only when high amounts of oxygen are oxygen present. as a general rule. When vacuuming continuous monitoring should occur. the lower explosive limit to accumulate. In most instances.e. should produce an effluent gases released from the opened man-way contain a environment wherein no more than 5% oxygen should be allowed substantial amount of hydrocarbons. Vessel entry standards used throughout the re-circulation systems are maintained at 0%. This procedure is path’. ■ HYDROCARBON WORLD 2007 3 . handling. Upon opening the reactor. The greatest danger of explosion exists at the point present that an ignitable condition can exist. are dumped in an air atmosphere. equipment may be located at some offsite location. well-trained staff and safety nitrogen purge circulation of light cycle oil or some type of passivating procedures. the re-circulation of the nitrogen. Typically. industry prohibit entry into an atmosphere of greater than 10% LEL. since reactor is not a concern if the oxygen content is maintained at less than instrumentation reading explosivity operates only when there is 5% (preferably 0%). as well as throughout the vessel. of the vacuum unit re-circulated back into the reactor. is an important step in the catalyst change-out In the end it is not ‘new technology’ that is the key to catalyst process. contractor’s procedures and methods will often be dictated by the carbonyls and the LEL of hydrocarbons. Nitrogen purging and should be implemented to insure safe vessel entry. certain checks are made to on any catalyst change-out.