Top problems and solutions process engineers face in the petchem construction boom

Process engineers must orchestrate the perfect mix of chemical efficiency, design efficiency and operations efficiency to succeed in this heavy construction and investment period for the U.S. energy industry, an engineer and author told Petrochemical Update.

As U.S. petrochemical production surges, process engineering teams will face increasing pressure to rapidly meet the challenges of process efficiency, process intensification, digitalization, and petrochemical sustainability.

New petrochemical projects are in the billion-dollar range and owners are anxious for their affordable new product to get to market as soon as possible, or as some might argue, sooner than possible.

Process engineering teams become tasked with the complex processes to design, build and commission these projects in order to bring the new products to market quickly.

This requires a complex mix of chemistry, science, engineering, construction, efficiency and project management to get the job done.

“The technological challenge is how we can design a highly flexible and integrated refining and petrochemical complex in a cost-effective manner,” said Frank (Xin) Zhu, Senior Fellow, Leader, Engineering Design Innovations, Honeywell UOP.

“It takes technology development, engineering innovation and process intensification to get there successfully.” Zhu said.
Zhu, one of the authors of the book: “Efficient Petrochemicals Processes — Technology, Design and Operations,” shared his process engineering secrets to success with the Petrochemical Update team.

Zhu is not only an author and a Senior Fellow at Honeywell UOP in the U.S., but also a former research professor in England.

Process Efficiency

The best process efficiency consists of three components: chemical efficiency, design efficiency and operations efficiency, Zhu said.

Chemical efficiency is the efficient use of raw materials, he explained.

“To get the best chemical efficiency, the key is to select the most cost-effective raw materials and explore the synergy between reaction chemistry, kinetics modeling and catalysts development,” Zhu said.

“Process development is the key enabler to achieve high chemical efficiency,” he added.

Design efficiency is how a team makes technology selections and how they connect all the different technology and determine operating conditions into optimal system designs featuring low capital and operating costs.

“Design efficiency is how you can explore process configuration and process intensification to enhance performance. Engineering innovation is the key enabler to achieve high design efficiency,” Zhu said.

Operations efficiency is how the teams operate the processes with minimum energy consumption via optimizing process conditions and better control. Integrated process optimization and control is the key enabler to achieve high operation efficiency.

“These three process efficiencies are always the drivers for optimal chemical production now and in the future,” Zhu said. “Operating companies must consider using cost-effective materials, advanced technology and optimized design and control.”

Process Intensification

Process Intensification (PI) is a topic receiving considerable attention in process engineering circles.

The PI definition from Stankiewicz and Moulijn (2000), is ‘any chemical engineering development that leads to a substantially smaller, cleaner, safer, and more energy efficient technology.’

“Process intensification applies to many unit operations,” Zhu said.

The improvement can be substantial (tens to hundreds of percent), and the benefits from the effort are expected to be game changing.

With that level of improvement, it is understandable why groups all over the world are advocating its applications.

PI can be divided into two areas: PI equipment and PI methods.

“Process intensification is about how to enhance mass and energy transport phenomenon, and how to combine different unit operations, which is called hybrid design,” Zhu said.

“Intensification can improve efficiency, reduce equipment size and minimize footprint of the plant,” he added.

However, teams face many challenges in implementing the PI methodology and validating the use of new technologies.

Advancing the right technologies is the result of intensification and better design, Zhu said.

“Technology advancement brings about new reaction, separation and heat transfer technology, which is the result of technology improvement,” Zhu said.

“Hybrid design with the proper integration of new technology and traditional technology in a built-in facility can achieve much higher improvements and smaller plot space than use of new technology in stand-alone.”


Digitalization is a hot topic in the energy industry now.

Every refining and petrochemical plant has been optimizing operations using models for planning, scheduling and processes which is called Engineering Technology (ET); and advanced controls, which is called Operation Technology (OT), for many years.

Now there is new Information Technology (IT) technology developed which includes the internet, cloud, wireless sensing, and data science technology empowered by data analytics, AI and machine learning.

“The best outcome for digitalization is achieved by the proper integration of IT (data centric), OT (control centric) and ET (model centric), which is designed to monitor current events and predict new events, detect early warning signs of failure, and make changes to process operations and enterprise business for better profit, efficiency, reliability and safety,” Zhu said.

IT includes using computers, data storage, data analytics, networking devices, and other devices to generate, process, store, secure and exchange all forms of electronic data. OT includes industrial control systems while ET consist of various models for simulation and optimization for business planning, operation scheduling and process operations.

“Digitalization is more than just data collection and software tools. It is about using cloud computing, Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT), data analytics, models and automation to address end-to-end enterprise touchpoints,” Zhu said.

With the new IT technologies, companies strive to improve connectivity among people, assets, tools and workflows to make the whole company/organization more collectively intelligent, agile and efficient in business, technical and operation management.

“It is natural for companies to consider digitalization to take advantage of the new IT capability for the good of the entire organization,” Zhu said.

The internet makes big data available and the use of data analytics can convert data to insights.


“As the result of the increased connectivity, more influx of data is generated from new contexts and the amount of data becomes overwhelming,” Zhu said. “That is why digitalization comes in and it is about how to make the data more intelligent in order to derive new insights and make more informed actions and decisions.”

U.S. petrochemical process engineers are using digitalization through real-time supply chain optimization in planning, scheduling and control via real-time data and optimization to determine when to process what feeds and how integration across supply, manufacturing, distribution and retail can be obtained to maximize profit and efficiency and reduce inventory and working capital.

Companies can also use proactive intelligence that discovers impending abnormal events (price changes, supply and demand changes, asset failure, weather, etc.) and finds ways to mitigate their impact.

Process engineering teams can use predictive analytics for reliability and maintenance where analytics is used for what-if analysis.

“Integrating real-time data and data analytics enables us to assess potential outcomes of operational states and behaviors and predict future events,” Zhu said. “For example, given the turbine’s current maintenance state, you can now estimate how long it can run before it fails.”

Petrochemical sustainability

The future sustainability of petrochemicals is about how feedstocks are managed, how efficiently the energy is used, and how flexible cogeneration operation is achieved.

The current situation is that crude oil demand is mostly for transportation fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and fuel oil.

“In the future, more of the crude oil will be converted to petrochemicals as demand for gasoline and diesel fuels has leveled-off and may decline over time in the future due to increased generation of renewable energy and use of electrical vehicles,” Zhu said.

With cogeneration operation, an integrated refining and petrochemical complex can adjust operations to meet market demands in a flexible manner.

When the market for transportation fuels goes down, the plant can make more petrochemicals. On the other hand, the plant can make more transportation fuels when the demand for gasoline and jet fuels increase, for example, when weather gets warmer and people want to travel more.

“The technological challenge is how we can design a highly flexible and integrated refining and petrochemical complex in a cost-effective manner,” Zhu said. “It takes technology development, engineering innovation and process intensification to get there successfully.”

Frank (Xin) Zhu will be speaking on this topic in more depth at the Downstream 2019 event in June. Zhu is the author of a book on the topic to be released in May: F. Zhu, J. Johnson, D. Ablin, G. Ernst: “Efficient Petrochemicals Processes — Technology, Design and Operations, Wiley/AIChE”

By Heather Doyle