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Density Stratification in LNG Storage

by David Sheats and Michael Capers, tanks. These tanks are located at a deep-water port and
Scientific Instruments, Inc.
are used to load the tankers for the oceanic
The use of LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) as an
transportation of the product to customers.
important energy source around the world is increasing
steadily. It currently represents about 6% of the world’s
natural gas and is readily available at numerous sites
Factors contributing to this increased usage include
the discovery of large resources, development of cost-
effective methods of production, transportation and
storage and the fact that LNG is a very clean-burning
fuel, making it an attractive option where
environmental concerns are high.
LNG is stored at cryogenic temperatures, which
present some unique safety concerns and require Typical LNG storage tank
specialized instrumentation to be able to detect
potentially unsafe conditions. In the following Import/Distribution
discussion, these concerns are identified and the An import/distribution facility capable of
instrumentation techniques for addressing them are accommodating these LNG tankers is located at a deep-
explained. The end result is a solution that gives water port in countries that are using the LNG as an
confidence to the storage facility personnel that any energy source. From these storage facilities, typically
potentially hazardous condition will be detected in a 3-10 storage tanks, natural gas is re-gasified and fed into
timely manner so that the proper corrective action may a national pipeline system or trucked to remote storage
be taken. locations. Such facilities are located in Spain, Japan,
Production of LNG Taiwan, Korea and the United States.
LNG is produced through a liquefaction process Peak Shaving Facilities
that lowers the temperature of the multi-component A peak shaving facility is actually a production/
mixture of hydrocarbons (mainly methane with lower distribution plant combined into one. The purpose is to
concentrations of higher hydrocarbons) to –160°C, a 600 produce LNG during low usage periods, and store that
to 1 reduction of volume from gas to liquid. In this state, gas for use during peak demands. The end result is the
the product is economically transported via specialized ability to ʺshave the peakʺ demand requirement off the
tanker ships from the production site typically quite gas supply lines, since that demand is normally only for
remote) to the customer. There are three primary types a short period, such as a very cold day. It is typically
of sites where LNG is stored, namely liquefaction/ owned and operated by a local gas company or pipeline
export facilities, import / distribution facilities and peak distributor. While the process is very similar to the
shaving facilities. larger facilities, the production/ gasification rate is much
Liquefaction/Export lower. The very nature of this type of facility dictates
The liquefaction/export facility is located at the gas that the gas will likely be stored for a much longer
source and performs the ʺcleaning,ʺ liquefaction and period, which has significant implications pertaining to
initial storage of the finished product. Such long-term possible density stratification as discussed below. The
supply countries as Indonesia, Algeria, Australia, storage tanks used at all three of the above types of
Malaysia, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates facilities may be above or below ground, but they are
represent this part of the LNG production train. New fundamentally the same. They have an inner tank, an
liquefaction facilities are or soon will be online in insulation space and a concrete or high carbon steel
Nigeria, Trinidad, Oman and Qatar. New fields have outer tank. They are typically 150ʹ in diameter, 160ʹ in
been discovered and remain to be developed in height, and have a storage volume of 15-18 million
Indonesia, Russia and off the coast of South America. A gallons of product. There are presently plans in
ʺtypicalʺ LNG exporting facility will operate up to 2-10 development for tanks with significantly greater
production trains and may have up to 10 LNG storage capacity than those previously built and in service.

Density Stratification in LNG Storage

Rollover At the same time, the liquid in the lower layer gains
A significant safety concern in the storage of LNG is heat through the floor and walls of the tank with a
a phenomenon known as ʺrollover.ʺ If this occurs, convection flow similar to the top layer. But because of
pressures inside the storage tank may rise to excessive the hydrostatic pressure of the upper layer, the rising
levels. The tanks are equipped with safety vent valves liquid does not evaporate but superheats. Thus the
that are designed to keep the pressures from rising to lower layer becomes warmer and less dense. When the
levels that could cause structural damage. However, two layers approach the same density, the interface
when these valves operate, LNG is vented to the between the two becomes unstable and mixes rapidly.
atmosphere at an uncontrolled rate, which is an When this occurs, the liquid from the lower layer that is
additional safety concern. superheated gives off a large amount of vapor that rises
LNG is heavier than air and could settle in pockets to the surface. It is this phenomenon that is known as
of explosive mixtures. Perhaps the most well known rollover.
case of rollover is that which occurred in La Spezia, Causes of Layering
Italy, in 1971. The actual pressures realized are What are the causes of layering? There are basically
unknown since they exceeded available instrumentation two ways that layering is produced. The first, and most
and gas vented uncontrolled in a highly populated area obvious, occurs when liquid of a different composition
for several hours. Fortunately, there was no explosion than that which is already in the tank is introduced into
and no major damage was done to the tanks. The the tank. This could be from a different gas field, or an
possibility of both potential problems was very evident, altered process that results in a different composition.
and much attention to detecting and preventing a This is most likely to occur at a receiving terminal.
similar occurrence has taken place since that time. The second cause of layering comes from a process
Rollover occurs under certain conditions as referred to as ʺautostratification.ʺ In this mechanism,
stratified LNG comes to equilibrium. Stratification unstratified liquid gains heat at the walls of the tank
occurs when the product in the tank forms in layers and rises by convection. It flashes upon reaching the
with different densities and different temperatures. surface. If sufficient nitrogen is present, the remaining
Sudden mixing of LNG in any storage tank occurs as liquid will be less dense, creating a layer at the top. As
two or more layer densities approach equality. Any heat this layer increases, it seals in the lower layer and can
trapped in the system is released rapidly during mixing, cause it to superheat, creating conditions leading to
generating a vapor which may exceed the venting rollover.
capability of the tank. Layer Detection
The exact conditions that lead to rollover are The most effective method of preventing rollover is
somewhat complex. If layering occurs (discussed to detect layering by means of instrumentation, and if
below), each layer is initially uniform, with the upper layering is present, take action to mix the layers under
layer lighter than the lower. Heat entering the top layer controlled conditions before the final conditions leading
comes through the walls of the tank. The liquid next to to rollover develop. If the size and composition of the
the tank walls warms slightly, becomes less dense and layers can be detected, the potential danger can be
rises to the top, where it evaporates. Since light gases accurately determined and the most cost-effective
evaporate first, the liquid in the top layer tends to approach can be chosen. This action may be the
become denser. operation of recirculation pumps (if available), or by
mixing with liquid in other tanks. Some installations
that have the capability of recirculation within a tank
choose to operate these pumps on a regular basis as a
preventive measure. Operation of these pumps is
expensive, however, and some facilities do not have a
simple method of recirculation.
Layer detection is best accomplished by means of a
temperature sensor and density sensor that are run
through the entire depth of the liquid.

Fluid circulation in a stratified LNG storage tank


Density Stratification in LNG Storage

In the absence of this, multiple temperature sensors
located at fixed intervals will also give an indication of
layering. The disadvantage to multiple sensors is the
difficulty of accurate calibration. The cost of multiple
density sensors is prohibitive.
One instrument currently available for layer detection
and installed at a number of facilities around the world
is the M6280 LTD series from Scientific Instruments, Inc.
It is specifically designed to detect temperature and Typical display from M6280LTD System showing stratification

density layering in LNG tanks. To accomplish this, a

single probe with installed temperature, density and to properly determine the extent of the danger, and to
liquid level sensors is driven over the entire depth of the enable cost-effective action in a timely manner to
liquid in the tank. The data is collected at fixed intervals prevent rollover.
as specified by the customer. Summary
Simple data analysis is performed to alert the Although we are not aware of any rollover incidents
operator of apparent temperature or density layering. If that have resulted in fires, explosions or major
certain areas of the tank are suspect, a feature known as structural tank damage, there have been many rollover
ʺTop Scanʺ is available to examine a potential layer in incidents throughout the LNG industry. An increasing
more detail, providing an accurate picture of the awareness of the potential problem has resulted in a
suspected layer. As mentioned previously, because a greater emphasis on installing instrumentation. Proper
single sensor is used for data collection, calibration instrumentation, such as Scientific Instruments, Inc.
errors are eliminated and an accurate relative profile is M6280 LTD, is the most secure way to obtain
obtained. With an accurate temperature and density information so that preventive action can be quickly
profile, detailed calculations can be performed implemented to avert a potential problem.

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