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An inside look at SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions’ new Tomball, Texas laboratory with Mel Esmacher, Senior Consulting Engineer: Part one of two

To accommodate the needs of its growing client base, SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions recently opened one of the world's largest water testing analytical laboratories in Tomball, Texas, located in the greater Houston area. Stainless Steel World Americas had the opportunity to visit the new lab where Mel Esmacher, a Senior Consulting Engineer at SUEZ, explored the upgraded capabilities now available. By Catarina Muia and Sarah Bradley
 
SUEZ – Water Technologies & Solutions, as part of parent company, SUEZ Group, is a leader in the water and industrial process treatment industry. Based in Paris, France, SUEZ Group has more than 90,000 employees spread across five continents. As the call for action to improve environmental issues continues to grow, SUEZ is committed to the smart and sustainable management of water resources, treatment, and resource recovery by supporting its customers.

To accommodate the needs of its growing client base, SUEZ recently opened one of the world's largest water testing analytical laboratories in Tomball, Texas, located in the greater Houston area. Stainless Steel World Americas had the opportunity to visit the new lab where Mel Esmacher, a Senior Consulting Engineer at SUEZ, explored the upgraded capabilities now available such as corrosion testing, and how they are used to evaluate corrosion-resistant alloy (CRA) applications including valves, hoses, pumps, heat exchangers, etc., within the water and industrial process industries.

By Catarina Muia and Sarah Bradley

Led by Esmacher, the Stainless Steel World Americas team had the chance to see live samples of corrosion that have been sent to SUEZ, for testing.
Led by Esmacher, the Stainless Steel World Americas team had the chance to see live samples of corrosion that have been sent to SUEZ, for testing.

Located just north of Houston, SUEZ’s modernized Lab in Tomball houses 80 employees, 50 of which are highly-trained engineers, chemists, and technicians, who focus on the continual growth of the company’s customer base, through the research and development (R&D) of water and industrial process treatment solutions.

With more than 35 years of experience in metallurgy, Esmacher first found himself in the water and industrial process industry in the early 2000s working at SUEZ WTS, which was then known as Betz Laboratories. Prior to the purchase of the business by SUEZ in September 2017, General Electric (GE), made multiple investments in the company, including the procurement of several equipment-solution companies, to complement SUEZ WTS’s leadership in the chemical treatment sector in the water and process industries.

This new Tomball Lab is another significant investment recently made to upgrade and expand SUEZ WTS’s capabilities and build upon the company’s impressive portfolio of innovative solutions and technologies. Esmacher shares his excitement about how the new Lab is already giving the SUEZ team the opportunity to use advanced testing for various applications, which then opens the door to improving solutions.

Digitized depth profile color mapping used to quantify corrosion damage.
Digitized depth profile color mapping used to quantify corrosion damage.

Testing capabilities and new technologies

As a global water and industrial process treatment company, SUEZ sees various types of corrosive waters on a daily basis, and therefore, needs to have the correct analytical and simulation techniques available for each situation in order to provide its clients with the best solution. With the new facility came opportunities to expand technology and testing capabilities, and the ability to better cater to the company’s clients.

Water purification

As an example of SUEZ’s leadership in providing novel equipment solutions, the ZeeWeed* ultrafiltration (UF) hollow-fiber membranes are designed for drinking water, wastewater, tertiary and water reuse applications, as well as industrial feed water and reverse osmosis (RO) pre-treatment. The advanced technology is operational in thousands of municipal, industrial, and commercial applications worldwide.

Treatment for specialty additives

Refineries and chemical plants rely on SUEZ’s process treatment for specialty additives. “If we receive samples from customers who have troublesome crude, we help them optimize the treatment in terms of crude stability, emulsion breaking, anti-fouling and corrosion control, in the processing of crude oil. In addition, our scientists in the Tomball Lab help key clients in the chemical process industry troubleshoot problems and propose innovative and environment-friendly solutions, say for polymerization control in production of various industrial monomers such as ethylene, styrene, butadiene, etc.,” Esmacher explains. “For this, our customer service and R&D Labs are crucial. This Lab is where the technicians work on problems seen at the various plants where, for example, a heat exchanger has been introduced, and deposition or corrosion has been found during the troubleshooting process. The Lab helps determine what is wrong via analytical testing, which in turn can provide direction for the selection of treatment additives to optimize up-time and process capabilities.”

The R&D Labs at the Tomball, Texas facility offer flexibility and the ability to move new equipment and new projects in and out of the test areas. A variety of specialized equipment and tests are seen within the Lab. 

“A majority of the Lab equipment simulates operating conditions of a refinery or chemical plant environment. This type of equipment allows us to pinpoint factors that can cause fouling or corrosion at operating plants. In addition, we can experiment with advanced, patented treatment ideas in the Lab before they are subject to full field trials, which is a big advantage,” Esmacher states.

Tests for advanced hydrocarbon applications

The hydraulic fracturing process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and other solutions, or fracking fluid, is injected into the rock to release the gas and liquid hydrocarbons inside the formation. The process creates cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas, petroleum, and brine will flow more freely. As the crude oil that comes from fracking is quite inconsistent, different treatments are required in refining the extracted oil. “In terms of particulate matter and fouling characteristics, the crude is quite different than other crudes. Such unconventional crudes when processed as such or as blends with conventional crudes can pose significant processing challenges due to crude incompatibility,” says Esmacher.

For more than a decade, SUEZ has been conducting research to fundamentally understand the causes of oil and blend instability, as well as chemistry development to negate the effects of instability. Operating experiences have also been collected for a multitude of crudes and crude blends. It has been identified that processing incompatible crudes and blends has several negative impacts for the refinery. While past techniques were helpful, it was recognized that relying solely on the experiential past and testing after the crude was already processed was not as effective a method as desired. In part this is due to a struggle to advise on unique blend combinations and conflicting experiences, from variation between ‘named crude’ documented quality, and actual physical properties of a particular shipment.

In response, SUEZ is offering an expert service called CrudePLUS* that combines an Oil Fingerprinting Device with predictive analytics to provide rapid\response, on-site analysis of crude oils, oil blends, and other hydrocarbon fluids to measure their potential instability and incompatibility and determine if any actions are needed to ensure the crude/blend can be processed without difficulties. This program is part of SUEZ’s investment in its Integrated Solutions for Refining development.

Esmacher shows a photomicrograph of intergranular stress-corrosion cracking (ISCC) in stainless steel alloy.
Esmacher shows a photomicrograph of intergranular stress-corrosion cracking (ISCC) in stainless steel alloy.

Testing for deposits or corrosion

A newer instrument seen at the Tomball facility, is the state-of-the art Inductive Couple Plasma (ICP) unit. “The ICP helps us to accurately detect very low levels of materials in the water, such as trace metals. The amount of dissolved metal in the water is important information to have,” Esmacher comments. “If you are seeing steel corrosion, for example, it means you have a lot of iron in the cooling water. The ICP is not only a way to acquire accurate values, but to also trace metals in various water systems, not just in cooling water but also in process water environments.”

The Tomball Lab will complete more than one million determinations per year via ICP testing, based solely on volume. “Different types of waters have different tolerances. Steam condensate for example, has very low tolerances because the restrictions in the amount of impurities in the steam, and the fact that high-purity steam condensate is often used in making up feedwater to the boiler, and you do not want any contact of impurities in the steam/water cycle. Therefore, there is a very low threshold for minerals, and many trace levels can be determined that way.”

For cases where corrosion is found, troubleshooting is required, and samples are often brought to the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Lab at the Tomball Facility. “If something did not go right and we are seeing deposits or corrosion, we can evaluate this on a microscopic basis in the SEM Lab,” says Esmacher. At first, while the corrosion coupon or failed sample might just look like a piece of metal, the closer the view gets, the more detail the SEM can provide on microscopic surface features that are related to how the corrosion propagates. In addition, the SEM is equipped with an Energy Dispersive X-ray Analyzer (SEM-EDXA), which can pinpoint the microscopic elemental composition within corrosion product layers, or in areas that have undergone pitting corrosion or cracking damage.

In some samples there can be hundreds of thousands of small corrosion pits, and each pit has an encapsulate history of how the corrosion product mound or deposit has formed over it. “This is an example of using the SEM and SEM-EDXA to document how corrosion progresses versus established electrochemical corrosion theory, and how we can intervene with a corrosion control program at the customer site.”

*Trademark of SUEZ; may be registered in one or more countries.

 

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