Steam Heat & Mass Balance Considerations in Refineries

Optimizing the heat and mass flow i.e. steam balance in a plant that has several levels of steam pressures is not a simple task due to the vast array of equipment such as turbines, heat exchanges, steam auxiliaries and accessories used. The steam balance of a refinery plant is further complicated because of use of steam for chemical processes and compression. Depending on processor licensor, technologies and many other traditional factors, it is not uncommon to see steam pressure levels defined in refineries as simply HP & LP or HP,MP & LP or as complex as VHP, HHP, HP, MP and LP.

The traditional approach to designing a steam system is to install steam generators able to generate steam at the maximum pressure and temperature with enough redundancy in capacity as required by the process. Modern steam generators tend to be inclined towards higher pressure steam rather than lower pressure steam – saturated high pressure steam has higher temperature meaning  less exchange surface in heat exchangers and reboilers, high density of high pressure steam requires less bore in the steam mains. Consequently, the usage of high pressure steam represents less capital expenditure. The resultant philosophy is to generate steam at the highest possible temperature and pressure, expand steam from a higher pressure to a lower pressure level through the most efficient means possible and use process at the lowest economically attractive pressure and temperature.

Concepts drawn from CHP namely topping and bottoming cycle have been implemented in refineries. In the topping cycle, fuel is used in a prime mover such as a gas turbine or reciprocating engine that generates electricity or mechanical power. The hot exhaust is then used to provide process heat, hot water, or space heating/cooling for the site. In a bottoming cycle, which is also referred to as Waste Heat to Power (WHP), fuel is first used to provide thermal input to a furnace or other high temperature industrial processes. A portion of the rejected heat is then recovered and used for power production, typically in a waste heat boiler/steam turbine system. To be effective, a bottoming cycle must have a source of waste heat that is of sufficiently high temperature (around 300 Deg C) for the system to be both thermodynamically and economically feasible.

A refinery with such steam pressure requirements at the design phase, in its life cycle however may operate under two distinct scenarios- excess or deficit steam. In the excess situation, equipment is shut or steam is vented off, and in deficit situation steam balance is made up by letting down from an immediate higher level.Blog 3

An optimal way to design and operate the steam balance system involves “what if” analysis and requires inputs from multiple sources such as process engineers, OEMs, equipment vendors, piping designers etc.  With the current trend in crude prices and need to maintain gross refining margins, an all possible mean need to be adopted for ensuring reduced costs. Though estimates vary, some figures indicate up to 130 Gigawatts (GW) of untapped potential at existing industrial and commercial facilities. To identify area of improvement in steam balance and optimize, a simplistic approach is an analysis using pressure and temperatures. A more detailed analysis requires estimation of enthalpy, entropy, exergy and anergy. Such an approach would consist of:

  1. Reconcile heat and mass balance for the steam system and achievement of LHS=RHS account (missing steam).
  2. Estimation of the performance of the existing cycle equipment from an efficiency and economic perspective.
  3. Ascertain inefficiencies in the steam system and opportunities for improvement and optimization by accurate simulation, modelling and scenario comparison.
  4. Assessment of the technical and economic feasibility of installing a rerate/upgrade/replacement


AxCYCLE™ is one such unique tool for design, analysis and optimization of thermodynamic systems (simulation, heat and mass balance calculation of heat producing and electric energy cycles) typically used for any heat and electric energy cycles including aircraft propulsion. Using AxCYCLE™ Economics – an extension to AxCYCLE™ it is possible to estimate capital/running investment calculation (CAPEX and OPEX) , fuel type selection, comparing different scenarios and return on investment.

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