Petroleum refineries run as efficiently as possible to reduce costs. One major factor that decreases efficiency is corrosion of the metal components found throughout the process line of the hydrocarbon refining process. Corrosion causes the failure of parts in addition to dictating the cleaning schedule of the refinery, during which the entire production facility must be shut down and cleaned. The cost of corrosion in the petroleum industry has been estimated at US$3.7 billion.
Corrosion occurs in various forms in the refining process, such as pitting corrosion from water droplets, embrittlement from hydrogen, and stress corrosion cracking from sulfide attack.From a materials standpoint, carbon steel is used for upwards of 80% of refinery components, which is beneficial due to its low cost. Carbon steel is resistant to the most common forms of corrosion, particularly from hydrocarbon impurities at temperatures below 205 °C, but other corrosive chemicals and environments prevent its use everywhere. Common replacement materials are low alloy steels containing chromium and molybdenum, with stainless steels containing more chromium dealing with more corrosive environments. More expensive materials commonly used are nickel, titanium, and copper alloys. These are primarily saved for the most problematic areas where extremely high temperatures or very corrosive chemicals are present.
Corrosion is fought by a complex system of monitoring, preventative repairs and careful use of materials. Monitoring methods include both off-line checks taken during maintenance and on-line monitoring. Off-line checks measure corrosion after it has occurred, telling the engineer when equipment must be replaced based on the historical information he has collected. This is referred to as preventative management.
On-line systems are a more modern development, and are revolutionizing the way corrosion is approached. There are several types of on-line corrosion monitoring technologies such as linear polarization resistance, electrochemical noise and electrical resistance. On-Line monitoring has generally had slow reporting rates in the past (minutes or hours) and been limited by process conditions and sources of error but newer technologies can report rates up to twice per minute with much higher accuracy (referred to as real-time monitoring). This allows process engineers to treat corrosion as another process variable that can be optimized in the system. Immediate responses to process changes allow the control of corrosion mechanisms, so they can be minimized while also maximizing production output. In an ideal situation having on-line corrosion information that is accurate and real-time will allow conditions that cause high corrosion rates to be identified and reduced. This is known as predictive management.
Materials methods include selecting the proper material for the application. In areas of minimal corrosion, cheap materials are preferable, but when bad corrosion can occur, more expensive but longer lasting materials should be used. Other materials methods come in the form of protective barriers between corrosive substances and the equipment metals. These can be either a lining of refractory material such as standard Portland cement or other special acid-resistant cements that are shot onto the inner surface of the vessel. Also available are thin overlays of more expensive metals that protect cheaper metal against corrosion without requiring lots of material.