Point of Need GC-HPMS: How hydrocarbon processing can join the tech revolution

By Graham Shelver, Commercial Leader of Applied Markets, 908 Devices Inc.

For the refining industry’s roughly 650 primary production facilities that process upwards of 88 million barrels of crude each day, and the thousands of allied downstream chemical manufacturing plants, ensuring process stability and consequent product purity remains paramount.

Recent technological advances have enabled many lab-based systems, such as Raman, FTIR and XRF, to be re-engineered into portable form factors weighing just a few pounds. Despite their small size, these new systems are robust, reliable, rugged and capable of performing complex analysis by non-technical users in the field. While there will always be a need for lab analysis, new fieldable technologies add capability and provide immediate actionable answers at the point of need. However, experience proves that, for the hydrocarbon processing industry, adopting new technology is often a race to be number two, with most players preferring to identify themselves as “fast followers” or part of the “late majority.”

For the oil and gas refining industry’s roughly 650 primary production facilities that process upwards of 88 million barrels of crude each day, and the thousands of allied downstream chemical manufacturing plants, ensuring process stability and consequent product purity remains paramount. In order to ensure purity, producers must frequently test product streams at various points throughout the process. This is done through a series of analytical tests to ensure product has not become contaminated or that the composition has not changed unexpectedly when moving from one stage to the next. This industry continuously strives to improve process efficiency, and new portable technologies can provide faster and more data rich results for many upstream, midstream and downstream applications. 

Within the realm of process stream analysis, presently field deployed in-line and at-line analyzers often rely on reduced electro/mechanical complexity for ease of operation, ruggedness and robustness.  This means that many process instruments are simply stripped- down versions of laboratory instruments that have been repurposed for use as production tools. This often comes with a trade-off of reduced selectivity and sensitivity for improved robustness and system uptime.

Refineries and downstream plants have been deploying laboratory-based gas chromatography (GC) instruments, using time-based selective compound detection, to monitor hydrocarbon production processes for decades. As a result, a wide range of GC analyzers are in use today for Simulated Distillation of Crude, Detailed Hydrocarbon Analysis, Oxygenates in Gasoline, Natural Gas and Refinery Gas analysis, using either Standard (ASTM, ISO, GPA, DIN) or ad-hoc methods developed for internal, process specific analyses. These systems are often complex, requiring multiple valve/column combinations, typically have poor Size, Weight & Power (SWaP) signatures, and often lack the selectivity and sensitivity required to positively identify specific compounds as new production process detection limits decrease.

While GC will no doubt continue to be used as an indicator of overall process performance, ensuring consistent product quality often requires more advanced analysis to be conducted using mass spectrometry (MS) instruments. Mass spectrometry is a well-established analytical technique for measuring the mass of charged molecules. Since the masses of molecules and their fragments are unique, MS provides users with the ability to distinguish between thousands of different molecules.  As a result it is often referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of chemical analysis. 

GC-MS instruments combine the compound separating power of GC with accurate MS based identification of molecules. Despite having clear advantages over regular GC detection, GC-MS has seen limited deployment at hydrocarbon processing sites due to high initial cost, size, system complexity, an absolute requirement for high vacuum (0.0001 Torr) and the specialized maintenance needed to keep these systems operating continuously.

With the advent of new technologies, an alternative approach to manufacturing process analyzers is gaining traction.  This involves designing analytical devices from the ground up using the latest miniaturized components and results in truly purpose-built, compact, rugged and reliable devices for use at the point of need. The improved analytical performance and favorable SwaP signatures associated with such devices provide tangible advantages over legacy systems, and makes these devices easily and equally deployable within hydrocarbon processing and centralized laboratory environments. 

Recently, a new generation device that combines a novel high-speed GC separation technology with the compound identifying accuracy of high-pressure mass spectrometryTM (HPMS) has been shown to have several advantages over conventional GC-MS offerings. HPMS is quite literally the act of performing mass spectrometry at much higher pressures – 10,000 times less vacuum than a conventional MS. HPMS not only enables several key components of the mass spectrometer to be miniaturized, it also completely removes the need for large, continuously operating vacuum pumps that limit deployment of conventional mass spectrometry within production environments.

By combining GC with HPMS, and thus eliminating the large roughing and turbo-molecular vacuum pumps required for regular GC-MS systems, companies are able to leverage the analytical power and low SwaP signature associated with fast GC-HPMS systems. As a result, implementing these instruments for routine, robust, on-line and at-line analysis becomes entirely feasible.  These devices have been shown to be well suited for continuous analysis in plant operator controlled hydrocarbon production environments.

Portable GC-HPMS devices offer analysts and plant operators a number of unique benefits over currently fielded GC systems. Due to the decreased cycle times, improved selectivity and sensitivity of GC-HPMS, these systems can rapidly identify and quantify specific compounds, including low-level impurities, within complex product stream matrices. With any process, it is important that known contaminants, such as low level oxygenates, which can degrade product quality, are identified early so their effect can be quickly ameliorated. Since portable GC-HPMS devices have been designed for onsite deployment, and are not restricted to only laboratory use, these can be used at the point of need to detect oxygenate and other contaminants, catching potential production problems sooner rather than later.

As the hydrocarbon processing industry advances, it is essential that decision makers are open to adopting new technologies that ensure product quality and maximize the bottom line. However, for any new technology to be successful, it is essential for industry innovators to partner with forward-leaning technology adopters to deliver unique solutions with real value, and be ready to rapidly scale the solution being offered. By deploying purpose-built and user-centric analytical tools, such as GC-HPMS, there’s enormous potential for improved efficiencies that can result in time and money savings for companies involved with hydrocarbon processing.

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