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Dumitru Popescu, Mdlina Mircioiu, Elena-Margareta Cimpoeu

University Politehnica of Bucharest
Faculty of Automatic Control and Computer Engineering
Splaiul Independentei 313, Bucuresti
Cod Postal 060042, ROMANIA

Abstract: The main objective of this work is the design and implementation of a hierarchical control solution for
chemical and petrochemical processes, namely the control and optimization of the ethylene pyrolysis reactor, the key-
installation in the petrochemical industry. The hierarchical control structures are organized on two levels of automation. The
execution or control level, on the one hand, has to fulfill two important tasks: the data acquisition from the physical plant and
the regulation of the major parameters of the process. The supervisory level, on the other hand, is referred to the optimization of
the production.

Keywords: ethylene pyrolysis, hierarchical control, optimization, multivariable nonlinear structure.


During the past 20 years, the chemical and
petrochemical industries have faced major challenges due
to global competition and rapid changes in economic
conditions. Advanced automation, process control, and on-
line optimization have played key roles in improving plant
performance. The chemical and petrochemical industry has
experienced an unprecedented development by upgrading
the equipment and the production lines and also by the
expansion of production capacity [1]. Petrochemical
industry is an important provider of products for population
and industry (food, pharmaceutical, mechanic, electronic,
textiles and so on) and remains a priority for the Romanian
Ethylene, the simplest of olefins, is used as a base
product for many syntheses in the petrochemical industry:
plastics, solvents, cosmetics, pneumatics, paints, etc.
Today, the demand for ethylene is over 125 million tons
per year with a growth rate of 3.5 % per year. Between
1995 and 2005, there has been a very significant shift in the
pattern of global ethylene manufacturing, a trend that is
continuing [1, 2].
The ethylene production process is one of the most
important aspects of a petrochemical plant and the cracking
reactor is the heart of the process. Since, ethylene is one of
the raw materials in the chemical industry and the market
situation of not only the feed and the product, but also the
utility is rapidly changing, the optimal operation and
control of the plant is important.
If in the past the main purpose of a control solution
was the stability of the system, in recent years the modern
control strategies of the large scale processes focus on the
efficiency and productivity of industrial plants. They must
enhance product quality, master the whole range of
products, improve process safety and plant availability,
efficiently utilize resources and also lower emissions.
An usual structure for the practical implementation
of an on-line optimization and control scheme for an
industrial process considers the overall design as a two
layer hierarchical system [3].

Fig.1.1 .Hierarchical control structure
In a normal technological evolution, the plant P
functions in a nominal mode. This is assured by the control
systems from the lower level, considered as the execution
level. The supervisor must develop an efficient control
decision so that the process has an optimal operating mode,
by imposing and respecting a quality criterion. In other
words, on this level it is determined the optimum control
strategy based on the on-line, real-time information to
achieve the control command by adjusting the manipulated
variables or set points at the execution level.
The decision level has a slow dynamics because
the changes in the global evolution of the process depend
on the temporary changes of the perturbation v. Contrary to
this, the dynamics of the execution level is faster because
of the temporary operating mode of the control systems.
In the first stage, the process model must be
evaluated by an identification procedure. In general, this
model is multivariable and nonlinear.
In the second stage, the objective is to define and
resolve an optimization problem. The process model is
used to construct the quality criterion J(y). The solution of
the problem:
( )
D y
y J

max , (1.1)
(where D is the admissible domain of the parameters
variation) , represents the optimal decision .
( ) y J y r
D y
= = max arg
* *
. (1.2)


In steam cracking, a gaseous or liquid hydrocarbon
feed like naphtha, LPG or ethane is diluted with steam and
briefly heated in a reactor without the presence of oxygen.
Typically, the reaction temperature is very high, at around
850C, the pressure is low (4 barr), but the reaction is only
allowed to take place very briefly. In modern cracking
furnaces, the residence time is even reduced to
milliseconds, resulting in gas velocities faster than the
speed of sound, to improve yield. After the cracking
temperature has been reached, the gas is quickly quenched
to stop the reaction in a transfer line heat exchanger [4].
As a general rule, a steam cracking furnace uses
radiant heat delivered by burners such as conventional gas
or oil burners as its source of heat. The burners are often
placed on the floor and/or the walls of the furnace and they
define a high temperature zone in the furnace, also referred
to as the "radiation" zone of the furnace. Immediately
above said zone, there is a convection zone through which
the hot combustion gases escape from the radiation zone,
which convection zone is generally used for preheating the
mixture of hydrocarbons to be cracked, also known as the
"feedstock" to be cracked. Thus, the mixture is usually
preheated to about 500
C. in the convection zone of a
furnace, after which it enters the radiation zone of the
furnace where it reaches the reaction temperature, in
particular a temperature in the range 700
C to 900
C. The
mixture is then cooled and compressed for recovering a
certain amount of heat and to purify the waste products.
After that, it follows a complex sequence of separation
techniques and different chemical treatments.
To assure the correct conditions for the evolution of
the pyrolysis reaction, it is important to proportion the
reactants at a 3:1 ratio (1500m
/h of fuel and 500m
/h of


The control level represents the base level in any
hierarchical control system and includes the pieces of
equipment used to implement the control algorithms, as
well as the devices that connect them to the physical plant,
namely the sensors and the actuators.
The control level has to fulfill two important tasks:
the data acquisition from the physical plant and the
regulation of the major parameters of the process.
The physical data acquired from the plant is further
processed and used at this level for the identification of the
mathematical models based on which the commands
associated to the various regulation systems are computed.
Finally, the control algorithms may be improved in
order to preserve the performances obtained in a simulated
environment for the closed loop system with the process
model identified and the control algorithm computed based
on that model when it comes to implementing it on a
physical platform.
This means that solutions must be found in order to
compensate the uncertainties that appear during the process
modelling stage and to ensure stability for the real system
as well as the preservation of the performances of the
nominal system for the physical plant. One such solution is
to compute robust control algorithms, as shown further in
this paper.

3.1 The numerical control solution

A standard automation solution for the process plant
described in the first section of this article should be able to
handle two major aspects concerning the proper operation
of the process. On the one hand, it should offer the
possibility to maintain a good proportion between the
quantities of reactants that are fed to the installation and, on
the other hand, it should provide the means to maintain the
temperature and pressure conditions within the limits
imposed by the nature of the chemical reactions that should
take place inside the reactor [5, 6].
Therefore, we have chosen an automation solution
with four control loops, as shown in Figure 3.1.
The first two control loops insure the control of the
gasoline and steam flow to the ethylene reactor. Besides the
gasoline and the steam flow, another controlled
technological parameter is the pressure inside the reactor. It
is very important that the pressure value is kept within the
boundaries of the admissible operating range so that the
process functions correctly and the reactor walls are not
submitted to any risk of deterioration. In this case, the
pressure inside the reactor should be of at least 3.3 barr and
of at most 4.5 barr.

Fig. 3.1.Automation solution for the ethylene reactor

Finally, the temperature within the median section of
the reactor is regulated by the control of the quantity of
used in the combustion process that heats the plant.
The automation solution should be able to provide the
possibility of maintaining the temperature values within
C and 860

3.2. Gasoline and steam flow control design

In this subsection of the article we will briefly
present the steps that were followed in order to determine
the algorithms suited for the control of the quantities of
gasoline and steam that are pumped into the reactor [3, 7, 8,
First of all, we have analytically determined the
mathematical models of the two processes based on a series
of process data provided by the plants owners [3].
These mathematical models are:
( )( ) 1 67 . 0 1 8
24 . 0
) (
+ +
s s
s H
for the gasoline flow process and:
( )( ) 1 2 . 0 1 4
21 . 0
) (
+ +
s s
s H
for the steam flow process.
Next, we proceeded to design the controllers for the
two nominated systems using a PI (Proportional -
Integrator) control algorithm. We used the Poles Placement
Method in order to determine the controller parameters that
would insure the desired tracking and regulation
performances for the closed loop systems.
The two controllers that we designed can be
described by the following associated transfer functions:

+ =

+ =
s H
s H
1 34 , 6 ) (
1 11 . 11 ) (
In order to validate the performances insured by
these control algorithms, we used a simulation environment
called Matlab Simulink. The results of the simulation for
the situation where the amplitude of the reference signal for
the steam control loop is one third of the amplitude of the
reference signal for the gasoline control loop are shown in
Figure 3.2.

Fig.3.2 .Step response of the gasoline and steam flow
control systems

The tracking performances are met and the
controller provides the rejection of the step type
disturbance signals applied to the output of the system.
However, in order to be able to implement these control
algorithms on a physical processing device, we need to
obtain their corresponding numerical representation.
Using the Euler approximation method for a
sampling period of 0.1 seconds, we have the following
discrete representations of the two control algorithms ready
for implementation:
34 . 6 92 . 7
) (
11 . 11 24 . 11
) (

z H
z H

3.3 Temperature and pressure control design

For the pressure and the temperature control systems
we directly designed the numerical versions of the
associated controllers following the steps briefly described
First of all, the process models were obtained
through an experimental identification method using the
data acquired from the physical plant. The most common
parametric adaptation method is The Least Squares Method
in its Recursive form. After identification, the models have
to be validated using different data sets. For the model
validation we used the Whiteness of the Residuals Test,
which states that the difference between the output of the
physical process after being submitted to disturbances and
the models output should estimate a white noise [3, 7, 10].
For the temperature control system we have
identified and validated the model in (3.5) using a sampling
period of 5 seconds. The dynamics of the process is slow,
so we can afford to consider a larger sampling period.
2 1
65344 . 0 61402 . 1 1
04711 . 0
) (

z z
z H
In the case of the pressure control system, the model
that was identified and validated for a sampling period of 2
seconds is the following:
2 1
70730 . 0 68364 . 1 1
00597 . 0
) (

z z
z H
Next, we designed two controllers that insure a
series of desired tracking and regulation performances
using an RST control algorithm whose structure is shown
in Figure 3.3.

Fig. 3.3.Standard RST controller structure

The reasons for choosing an RST control algorithm
over a classical PID control algorithm were the fact that the
first one allows for different tracking and regulation
performances to be imposed, as well as the fact that it can
lead to a robust control algorithm, which is essential given
the work context.
The three control polynomials R, S and T were
computed using the Poles Placement Method.
Even though the two nominal control systems
obtained ensured the desired tracking and regulation
performances, this only happened for disturbances with
amplitudes of maximum 3% of the reference signal
amplitude. Therefore, we had to redesign the control
algorithms so that the closed loop systems were robust to a
wider range of possible disturbances.

3.4 Robustness analysis

The presence of a disturbance with amplitude higher
than 3% of the amplitude of the reference signals for the
temperature and pressure control systems causes high
amplitude variations of the control signal within a short
period of time. This kind of shocks can lead to the
malfunctioning of the actuator and has a strong negative
influence as far as the physical process is concerned.
Our goal is to design robust controllers that can
provide a way of preserving the performances obtained in
simulation when it comes to the physical system as well as
insuring that the closed loop control system is stable in the
presence of disturbing signals or modeling uncertainties.
There are two ways to measure the robustness of a
controller. The first one is the output sensitivity function,
and the second one is the modulus margin.
The output sensitivity function represents the
influence of the perturbation on the output:
) ( ) ( ) ( ) (
) ( ) (
) (
1 1 1 1
1 1

z R z B z S z A
z S z A

) (

z A and ) (

z B are the two polynomials of the

identified process model. ) (
z R and ) (
z S are the control
polynomials computed earlier. It is desirable for the value
of the output sensitivity function to be as low as possible.
The modulus margin M represents the minimal
distance of the open loop Nyquist plot of the control system
and the critical point [-1, 0j]. For the closed loop system to
be robust, the modulus margin has to be maximized.
The output sensitivity function and the modulus
margin are related through the following formula:
max min

= =
py py
For a robust system it is necessary to have a
modulus margin greater or equal to 0.5, which implies a
maximum of 6dB for the output sensitivity function.
The output sensitivity function of the previously
designed nominal temperature control system does not
meet this requirement, as shown in Figure 3.4.

Fig. 3.4 Frequency amplitude representation of the output
sensitivity function for the nominal temperature control system

In order to improve the controller we have added a
pair of complex auxiliary poles to the characteristic
polynomial given by the denominator of the sensitivity
function in (3.7). The new control polynomials are:

+ =
+ =
+ =

4 3
2 1 1
2 1 1
2 1 1
63 . 5 19 . 31
15 . 65 68 . 60 22 . 21 ) (
24 . 0 24 . 1 1 ) (
24 . 2 53 . 5 42 . 3 ) (
z z
z z z T
z z z S
z z z R
The output sensitivity function of the new closed
loop system meets the imposed 6dB limit, which makes the
new controller a robust one.

Fig. 3.5 Frequency amplitude representation of the output
sensitivity function for the robust temperature control system

The tracking and the regulation performances from
the nominal case are preserved, but the control signal does
not undergo such violent variations in the presence of a

Fig. 3.6 Step response and process input for the robust
temperature control system

As far as the pressure control system goes, we have
encountered a similar situation.

Fig. 3.7 Frequency amplitude representation of the output
sensitivity function for the nominal pressure control system

This time we added two real poles to the
characteristic polynomial and obtained the following
control polynomials:

+ =
+ =
+ =

4 3
2 1 1
2 1 1
2 1 1
24 . 64 5 . 325
1 . 620 6 . 526 5 . 167 ) (
45 . 0 45 . 1 1 ) (
14 . 10 15 . 24 34 . 14 ) (
z z
z z z T
z z z S
z z z R
The new controller is also a robust one.

Fig. 3.8 .Frequency amplitude representation of the output
sensitivity function for the robust pressure control system

Figure 3.9 shows that the tracking and the regulation
performances imposed for the nominal system are
preserved and that the perturbation does not have such
important influence over the process input signal anymore.

Fig. 3.9 Step response and process input for the robust pressure
control system


The optimization problem of the operating
conditions supposes to determine the point from the
admissible domain where the process performances are
optimal [11]. In this case study, the optimization objective
is to maximize the concentration of ethylene from the plant
output (z), computing the best choice for the reference
signals. For solving this problem, we utilize a number of
experimental data collected directly from the plant. This
data consist in values for the gas flow (y
/h], the steam
flow (y
) )[m
/h], the reaction pressure (y
respectively, the reactor temperature (y
C]. We estimated
the optimization model, in which the quality variable z
represents the rational concentration of ethylene in the final
multi-composite mixture.
The structure of the multivariable nonlinear model
has the following form:
4 4 3 3
2 1 1 0

y a y a
a y a a z + + + + = (4.1),

= [
a ] (4.2)
represents the model parameters determined using the Least
Squares method (LS) on a set of gathered data.
The optimization problem is formulated as follows:
( ) y z ,

max (4.3),
with the restrictions given by:
] [ 860 820
] [ 5 . 4 3 . 3
] [ 540 430
] [ 1600 1000
C y
barr y


The results obtained from a Matlab calculus routine
are conforming to the limitations imposed: 1

y =1599,6
/h], 2

y =430.03 [m
/h], 3

y =3.3 [barr] and


y =859.85 [
C]. The quantity of ethylene produced in
this case represents the optimal value

z =34.16% from
the total of the pyrolysis reaction final products.
The optimal decision ( 1

y , 2

y , 3

y , 4

y ) from
this supervisory level is automatically transferred as
references to the control level.
After implementing this method, the concentration
of ethylene has been increased by aprox. 4% compared
with the mean value of ethylene calculated based on the
data acquired from the plant.
The fact that the ethylene production for the given
reactor was increased is proof to the fact that the chosen
hierarchical control system is suited and well proportioned
when it comes to this particular plant.
We have therefore met our two major goals which
were to provide robust control algorithms for the main
process parameters and to maximize the quantity of
ethylene produced by the reactor.

Table. 4.1 Experimental data collected directly from the


1. This paper proposes a two-leveled hierarchical
control structure for a pyrolysis reactor.
2. The control level refers to the design of the control
systems required for the correct proportioning of the
reactants (gasoline and steam) flows and for the control of
the reaction parameters (pressure and temperature). The
calculations are performed with real data, collected directly
from the technological plant.
3. The optimization level has to ensure the increase
of the reactor operational efficiency through the
maximization of the quantity of the useful product obtained
after the reaction takes place (the maximization of the
correction efficiency).
4. The results obtained in simulation have been
implemented on a collection of digital equipments,
properly sized, on a petrochemical platform from Romania.
The control solution proposed in this paper determined an
increase in the plants ethylene production of approx. 4%.
5. As researches in progress, two issues will be
solved: the thermal stabilization of the reactor and the
stochastic approach of the optimization problem.


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