You are on page 1of 4

Non-disruptive & on-line inspection

Non-disruptive & on-line inspection

Gamma-ray scanning for

troubleshooting, optimisation and
predictive maintenance of
distillation columns
This paper describes Non-disruptive and on-line inspection technique to diagnose process malfunctions
and pinpoint internal damage within distillation columns in petroleum refineries and chemical plants

istillation columns are considered as one of the packing hydraulics inside a column at any set of on-
most critical components in petroleum refiner- line condition. It provides essential data to optimise
ies, gas processing installations and chemical the performance of columns, extend column run times,
plants. Plant performance depends to a large track the performance-deteriorating effects of fouling
extent on the ability of these columns to function as and solids deposition, and identify maintenance re-
intended. Defective columns may lead to serious con- quirements well in advance of scheduled turnarounds.
sequences to the plant operation and hence the quality This on-line knowledge can reduce repair downtime
of the product. Thus, when a distillation column expe- significantly.
riences irregularities, it is urgently necessary to find By analysing the scanning results, a number of
out exactly what is happening inside the column. Any common malfunctions in trayed or packed columns
kind of problem can result in a large financial loss can readily be determined, some of which are sum-
especially when it involves off-spec product, lost of marised in the following table.
production or unexpected shut down of the plant. The In Malaysia and the surrounding region, the examina-
earlier the problem is identified and corrected, the tion of process vessels (columns, separators, reactors,
lesser will be the loss and the cost
to rectify it. In most cases, trouble- Gamma scanning can identify a number of common malfunctions in columns.
shooting to pinpoint the cause of Mechanical • Displaced or damaged trays, demister pads and packing
the problem in columns is con- problems • Corrosion resulting in partial tray damage
ducted on-line. It seems that this is • Missing, collapsed or buckled trays or manways
the only way column performances
• Out-of-place liquid or vapour distributors
can be observed. Inspection while
• Level control problems on chimney trays or base liquid level
the column is in operation also ena-
bles continuous monitoring and Rate related • Entrainment (slight, moderate, severe, jet flooding)
assessment of the component. problems • Weeping or dumping trays
Gamma-ray scanning, often re- • Dry or flooded trays due to loading conditions
ferred to as “column scanning”, is • Unequal liquid levels on trays and in parting boxes, troughs
a convenient, cost-effective, fast, and collectors
efficient and non-intrusive tech-
Process • Foaming on trays or in reboilers, condensers and accumulators
nique to examine inner details of
related • Maldistribution of vapour and liquid in packing
a distillation column, while it is in
operation. Column scanning al- problems • Liquid hold-up due to plugging and fouling
lows an engineer to study tray or • Superheated or subcooled feed or reflux

62 HYDROCARBON ASIA, JAN/FEB 2005 Visit our website at:

catch-pots etc.) in petroleum refineries, gas processing The technique is based on the fundamental relation-
installations and chemicals plants using this technol- ship:
ogy is routine. Scans are frequently carried out on a
spot-check basis to investigate column malfunctions. In
addition, many process columns are scanned on a regular
basis to provide early warning of deterioration in their where I is the intensity of a beam of gamma-ray of initial
performance. The examinations are carried out by highly intensity, Io, having traversed distance x in a material of
experienced and well-trained engineers and technolo- density, r. The mass absorption coefficient, m, is constant
gists from the Plant Assessment Technology (PAT) Group for a given gamma-ray energy and material composition.
This relationship shows that an in-
crease in material density will reduce
the radiation signal, or conversely a
decrease in material density will re-
sult to an increase in the level of
radiation intensity transmitted to the
Radioactive sources used for distil-
lation column investigations should
be capable of penetrating the wall
thickness of the column and the me-
dium of interest. For this reason,
high energy gamma-ray from Cobalt-
60 or Caesium-137 is usually
employed. It is worth to note that the
strength of the sources used for this
activity is extremely small such that
the scan poses insignificant radiation
hazard to plant personnel. For the
sake of comparison, the level of ra-
diation intensity for column scanning
Gamma-ray absorption scans of a trayed column and a packed column. activity is approximately between 1/
10000th to 1/1000th of the gamma-
at the Malaysian Institute for Nuclear Technology Re- rays intensities used in examining welds.
search (MINT), Bangi, Selangor. Having being involved in
the column scanning technology since 1980, PAT’s tech- Inspection procedure
nical staffs have performed hundreds of scans on various Column scanning is generally performed without any
types of process columns across the country and around pre-preparation of the column. All that is required is
the region. access to the uppermost platform. No insulation needs to
be removed, and the scan does not interfere with the
Principle of measurement operation of the column. In practice, most columns have
Column scanning is a procedure whereby a process convenient platforms or walkways from which source
column is non-disruptively examined by moving a and detector can be suspended and it is rare indeed that
sealed radioactive source emitting gamma-ray in con- additional scaffolding or staging is required.
junction with a radiation detector along the exterior of In performing measurements on a column, a source of
the interposed column. Throughout the period of in- gamma-ray is placed on one side of the column whilst a
vestigation, the radioactive material remains sensitive gamma-ray detector is placed on the opposite side.
permanently encapsulated within a special source hous- The source and detector are synchronously lowered down
ing and makes no contact either with the column or the exterior of the column in small increments while trans-
with the process material. A source holder with an mitted radiation-intensity measurements are being recorded
appropriate collimator is used to direct the radiation via a portable nucleonic counting device. The system is
beam to the column. Interaction of the radiation with then interfaced to a powerful portable computer to facili-
the medium of interest will produce changes in the tate data storage and analysis. To ensure that the source
intensity of the beam that can be correlated to the and the detector are maintained in the same horizontal
property of the medium. plane, especially in windy conditions, guide ropes are


Non-disruptive & on-line inspection

normally used. Scans can be made across the diameter of scan is a density profile of the inside of the process
the column. Or they can take place along a chord, to vessel. For distillation column, correlating the changes
identify problems within a particular quadrant. in density seen in the scan profile with column inter-
As the source and detector scan through a normal nals and what is known from column service records
vapour space in a process column, a transmission yields an accurate picture of the unit’s performance
peak is observed and when the “scan-line” intersects a and physical condition.
structural material, such as a tray with aerated liquid,
an absorption peak is observed. The end result of the Distinguishing features of the technology
• Capable of non-disruptive and non-invasive investi-
• Scans are performed on-line; hence, normal opera-
tion of the column is not disrupted. They are carried
out completely external to the process.
• Full length scanning capabilities.
• No preparation of columns (for additional scaffold-
ing or staging) and components dismantling is
required. Only requires access from readily avail-
able platforms or walkways.
• Insulation or lagging need not be removed.
• Performs non-contact measurement, therefore, is
not affected by high temperature, high pressure,
corrosiveness etc.
• Utilises small amount of “sealed radioactive source”
with in-built radiological safety features to comply
with national and international legislative require-
• Applicable to all column sizes.
• Uses computer-aided data acquisition, retrieval and
analysis system enabling fast, accurate and reliable
results. Data collected and stored by computer can be
used immediately as well as for future comparisons.

Recommended scanning programme

In keeping a systematic and a complete record of
column operating conditions, it is highly recommended
that a regular programme of column scanning should
be implemented as follows:
• Troubleshooting Scan TM or Diagnostic Scan TM :
Diagnose operational, mechanical and process
related problems. Gain empirical confirmation of
models and simulations. Locate bottlenecks
through real-time analysis.
• Blank Scan TM or Dry Scan TM: Scanning of internal
structures of a column before operation or during
• Reference Scan TM : Record normal operating
profile after start-up or during commissioning for
Gamma-ray scanning for non-disruptive and on-line
inspection technique to diagnose process malfunctions and baselining. Verifies the system design and
pinpoint internal damage within distillation columns in optimise system performance.
petroleum refineries and chemical plants. • Performance Scan TM
: Evaluate existing column

64 HYDROCARBON ASIA, JAN/FEB 2005 Visit our website at:

performance and develop observers from European countries,
project engineering. Study tray the Middle East and the African Hydrocarbon Asia thanks Dr
or packing hydraulics at any continent. Jaafar Abdullah for contributing
set of on-line conditions. this paper.
Investigate the effectiveness of
Radiological safety
antifoam addition. Dr Jaafar is
Column scanning uses a “sealed
• Scheduled Scan TM or Periodic radioactive source”, which emits the Manager and
Scan TM : Routine scans should gamma radiation. The strength of Principal Research
be conducted quarterly, half- the source is very minimal (between Scientist of Plant As-
yearly, annually or at a 1,000 to 10,000 times less activity) sessment Technology
pre-determined period for compared to those mostly used in Group, Industrial Technology Di-
predictive maintenance and industrial radiography. The source vision, Malaysian Institute for
life assessment programme. holder is designed with in-built ra- Nuclear Technology Research
Periodically monitor the diological safety features to ensure
progress of fouling, plugging (MINT), Bangi, Selangor. He has
that exposures to the inspection
and corrosion. Identify mainte- been involved in a wide variety
team and plant personnel or the
nance requirements well in public do not exceed permissible lim- of research and development us-
advance of scheduled turna- its recommended by the International ing radioisotope technology for
rounds. Commission on Radiological Protec- industrial plant assessment since
• Prior Shutdown Scan TM : tion (ICRP) and the IAEA, as well as 1980. As the pioneer of gamma
Checking the internal condi- the regulatory guidelines of the scanning technology in Malaysia
tion of a column prior to a Atomic Energy Licensing Board and the surrounding region, his
shutdown. Schedule parts and (AELB) of Malaysia. experience in using the technol-
materials to be on-hand prior ogy for investigating and
to a turnaround. Concluding remarks troubleshooting various types of
The application of radioisotope process columns in petroleum re-
National and International techniques, in particular, gamma-ray fineries and chemical plants is
recognition scanning, can help improve the effi- extensive. He is recognised by
ciency of a distillation column or it the International Atomic Energy
Gamma scanning has been suc-
can pinpoint the reason for a decline Agency (IAEA) as an expert and
cessfully used to investigate various
in performance, thus yielding large consultant in the field of indus-
types of trayed and packed col-
savings through avoidance of loss of trial applications of radioisotopes.
umns in petroleum refineries, gas
production and wasted maintenance He received his B.Sc in Physics,
processing installations and chemi-
effort. Column scanning is only a
cal plants in Malaysia and nearby M.Sc in Nuclear Technology from
small subset of the many applica-
region. The successful utilisation University of Surrey, UK and Ph.D
tions of radioisotope technology
of this technology has been recog- in Materials Engineering from Uni-
encountered in practice. The tech-
nised both nationally and versity of Wales Swansea, UK.
nique is straightforward, quick,
internationally. MINT, in co-opera- He has published substantial
sensitive, unambiguous and safe.
tion with the International Atomic amount of scientific papers, con-
Realising the importance of the tech-
Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna,
nology, considerable efforts have sultation documents, technical
have organised several training
been undertaken by MINT towards reports and articles. He has won
courses to promote this technol-
promoting and expanding its usage a number of awards both nation-
ogy, to scientists and engineers from
in Malaysia and around the world. ally and internationally for his
Regional Co-operative Agreement
To ensure effective use of this tech- outstanding innovations in the
(RCA) member countries, includ-
nique, MINT encourages and field of radioisotope technology.
ing Australia, China, Bangladesh,
welcomes collaboration and partici- He is a member of several profes-
India, Indonesia, Japan, the Repub-
pation from the petroleum and
lic of Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, sional organisations and societies,
chemical industries. But more im-
Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, which include MNS, MSNT, IPM,
portant, and what is expected, is the
the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand IMM and MARS. He was the chair-
readiness of the industries to accept
and Vietnam. The courses and man of MSNT technical and
and adopt the technology.
workshops have also been attended training committee.
by a number of participants and Enquiry Number 01/02-02 HA