The role of sealing devices in reducing methane emissions has been a hot topic in our industry for some time, and we see that trend is continuing. Sealing and containment devices are an integral part of efforts to minimize emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Plants, refineries and other facilities have an increased incentive to ensure that valves and other rotating equipment operate to emissions-compliant levels. With more regulations on the horizon, we wanted to gain a broader perspective by speaking to two leading experts on the subject.
Sealing and Containment Devices That Can Reduce Emissions
A primary motivation for industrial facilities to reduce emissions is government regulation led by the Environmental Protection Agency and similar agencies at state and local levels. “Sealing development plays an important role in emissions in methane, oil, and gas – which is my focus area,” says Sean Wright, Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund Plus Business Program. He discussed the example of how compressors often come up in this area and the importance of both having the correct seal and maintaining it.
“Even a 1% to 2% loss can be significant, especially with methane,” says Wright. “It’s 86 times more potent than CO2 for its first 20 years of release into the environment. It also has a negative impact on climate change and can damage the reputation of natural gas as a cleaner source of energy. It’s a classic win-win to use sealing devices. The plant gets to keep their product, it doesn’t go on to damage the environment, helps the plant run effectively, and provides well-paying American jobs to those who make the seals. If they don’t use these products, especially with methane, they aren’t serving their own best interest. They lose product. There have been issues with more and more regulations on methane since 2014, notably in Colorado, California, Wyoming, and even Canada.”
We asked him to speak a little more on his role in the EDF. He says their goal is simple: to protect the environment. In fact, they consider the environment to be their client. The EDF wants all companies to operate responsibly and protect their local communities and health. They know sealing and containment solutions are readily available and that they must be used properly. “In short, it’s good for their bottom line, their investors, the public, the climate, and their workers. Regulations are critical in order to solve the issue of emissions. Many operators proactively address this issue while others do not. Our regulations help see that they do.”
Sealing and Containment Devices That Increase Profitability
To get a view from the plant side, we spoke to Phil Mahoney, President of the Fluid Sealing Association and Manager of Research & Development – Stationary Equipment at A.W. Chesterton Company. “In any kind of plant you’ll find rotating equipment (pumps, mixers, agitators, etc.) and stationary equipment such as valves and flanges,” he noted. “Products used to help seal and contain emissions have been developed by many of our FSA members specifically for these types of services.”
It all began when the EPA set a limit on emissions in refineries as part of the Clean Air Act. Products used at the time could not conform, which pushed a development cycle for sealing device manufacturers. As emissions standards were reduced in some cases to 100 parts per million for stationary devices, the development process started again, with a number of companies developing products that could seal to much lower levels than that. “Once plants implement an emissions reduction program, the results can be significant, and the FSA member’s sealing products help them do that,” continued Mahoney. “Some companies are now aiming for 50 parts per million in anticipation of the next regulation. In the case of methane, any amount lost to environment is less product the end users have to sell or utilize in their processes. In addition, end users want warranties in the product they are buying. They want assurances that these devices will last for a certain period of time. One of their main goals is longer time between turnarounds (where the plants shut down to perform maintenance and repairs), and they want these new sealing devices to last for much longer periods between maintenance or replacement.”
We were skeptical if that was possible, but Mahoney had a great point. “Many companies have products intended to do just that. As an example, there are mechanical seals for compressors sealing methane that currently use dual mechanical seal with liquid barrier fluid. These ‘wet’ seals can be replaced with ‘dry’ gas seals in the same service conditions and achieve longer service life with a newer technology.” With gas seals, the sealing faces don’t actually touch each other during normal operation; they ride on a thin film of gas. Since the faces don’t contact each other, they run for longer periods without repair. The initial upfront cost is a little more, but the long term service life can be much better. They are very reliable, with much lower maintenance costs and lower energy consumption with virtually no friction between the sealing faces. The requirement for service life in some standards is a little less than 3 years, but there are case histories of gas seals running for 7 years or more trouble free. Another example are compression packings used for valve sealing in low emissions services. Using data from standardized test methods, packing manufacturers regularly warranty their product for 5 years.
He also spoke about new monitoring systems that can instantly tell users when a leak is present. “These products are already qualified for use with refinements on the horizon,” he noted. “In refineries they have point ‘sniffers’ for VOCs, but they have to walk through the process system with each valve and report the results. This new technology lets you see leaks from a distance. Optical gas imaging is a relatively new and evolving technology that saves time. Not all the available technologies can quantify the leak in parts per million yet, but they all notify users of leaks immediately. I have seen equipment that can monitor itself which could be the next up and coming piece of tech. Why bother looking for leaks if the equipment can tell you itself when it’s leaking? That could be the future of emissions monitoring.”
In regard to the works of the FSA, he revealed that they have a focus on training. “There is a gap between the younger and older generations in plants,” he told us. “There’s all this new tech and people maybe don’t know what’s available and what to do with it. We need to educate users on why, where, and how to install sealing devices. Live training is best, but conferences and webinars also offer great options.” He noted the upcoming Valve World Americas Expo & Conference, the 2017 ISA LDAR Fugitive Emissions Symposium, and the 4C Health/ Safety/ Environmental Conference as examples of venues where knowledge can be gained.
We asked about the ROI of using all of this new technology. He answered, “the ROI can be 1 to 2 years when changing from a wet to a dry seal on a compressor. It’s not as easy to calculate with a population of valves. We recently worked with an end-user looking to save money to pack valves in a plant. They were using an older product that cost 50% less up front. It worked fine for the first year but then a high percentage of the valves started showing spikes in leaks. It’s just unacceptable to have 30% of your valves leaking. In the long run, they had to swap out these products and had increased downtime. Plants now have standardized programs that are rigorous and robust to ensure systems are working properly.”
“In the end, I think regulations help drive innovation, but there is also a commercial component with sealing devices that drives adoption of the latest technologies. There’s always going to be development in that area because it’s good for everyone. If we can do it without being super expensive, it will provide our customers with long term benefits.