My chemical engineering career revolved around understanding intricate production systems and making them work better.
Complex chemical processes can take years to design, build and troubleshoot. I had the opportunity to go through two such design-build-startup cycles in my days.
Double, triple and quadruple checks were called for. And I’m pleased to say that when I took early retirement, I left behind two working plants.
But it was my very first assignment that still stands out to me. The process I was working on made nitrogen oxides (NOx) as part of the offgas.
To minimize the amount of NOx sent in the atmosphere, the plant had an evaporation tower where water would flow down from the top over a series of horizontal trays in the tower and would absorb the NOx from the gas stream flowing up from the bottom of the tower. This is a similar model:
My job was to figure out why the tower wasn’t taking out as much NOx as needed.
I did what any good engineer would – I studied the design parameters of the tower to see if I could uncover any parameters that were off. Everything was correct, so there were no performance problems there.
It wasn’t until I left the office and climbed the tower itself that I found the answer.
In short, cooler liquids absorb the gas more efficiently, so each of the contract trays in the tower had a cooling coil attached to it. When I tested the first few cooling coils – I found that 2 out of 3 were plugged completely – I was on to something…
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Checking the rest of the tower, I found that over 70% of the cooling coils were plugged or damaged.
After backwashing (cleaning) all the coils and repairing those that needed it – lo and behold the old column was back to running at designed specs.
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