Pump Engineer had the pleasure of speaking with George Gabriel about the various roles and responsibilities he took on while designing the basic and detailed processes of mega methanol plants. As a senior process engineer, Gabriel provided interesting insight into the various pumps that are used in methanol plants and highlighted the importance of working on a project from its inception to its completion.
With over 18 years of experience in engineering, George Gabriel has worked his way through several industries. Beginning his career as a production engineer, Gabriel established himself through a number of different roles which handled a wide variety of equipment. After two years of working with pharmaceutical water treatment systems, Gabriel became a lead project engineer engaging with ultra-membrane filtration. Following an additional few years in the emissions control sector, mitigating environmental issues, he became a lead project engineer for large offshore oil and gas projects. It was in the oil and gas sector that Gabriel truly discovered his passion.
“I have worked extensively in three industries,” commented Gabriel. “I have been in the water treatment industry, I have been in the air pollution and control industry and I have worked in the oil and gas industry, and for me the latter has been the most dynamic. Where the progress of other industries, such as fugitive emissions, is dependent on government regulations and restriction, the oil and gas sector is primarily a function of sophisticated technologies and the needs of the general populous. As there is generally more action and new inventive technologies, I find it to be very interesting and engaging.”
In 2014 Gabriel began his work with Orascom, to build what would be the first methanol plant of its size in the United States. Located in Beaumont, Texas, the facility known as Natgasoline’s Methanol Plant now produces up to 5,000 metric tons (t) of methanol a day, which amounts to roughly 1.8 million(t) a year. This yearly total currently exceeds the production capacity of all of the other methanol plants in the United States. While working with Orascom Gabriel completed his MBA in 2017, which prepared him for the next step in his career as an Engineering Manager.
Gabriel was hired as one of the EPC contractors to design the entirety of the plant. When asked to take on the project he was particularly excited, as it was the first mega methanol plant to be built in the United States and he would be able to partake in its creation. Gabriel estimates that there was close to $1.6 billion invested into the project. As the skills required to design a plant of this magnitude are numerous and highly technical in nature, it is not surprising that only few individuals, Gabriel included, were commissioned to design the facility. A mega methanol plant with this capacity can take anywhere from one and a half to two years to design. As most of the equipment and products are custom made, there is a significant amount of work that goes into designing each process.
“For every piece of equipment there is a unique data sheet,” explained Gabriel. “The data sheets are produced by the process engineers and used to create the feed design. Essentially they indicate the dimensions, pressure, temperature, flow, process and non-process connections size, type and quantity for all the equipment required in the plant. These data sheets are sent to a detail engineers, Mechanical, Electrical or instrumentation and control engineers to create the detail design.”
The composition of data sheets, was just one of many responsibilities Gabriel had as a process engineer. With a business background, he was also able to assist the project financial team assess aspects of the facility from both an engineering and a financial perspective. “I looked into the technical aspect of the designs, as that is my background,” stated Gabriel, “but I also took a significant amount of time assisting the project financial team to overlook the business related details and ensure that both the technical and financial sides were approached with efficiency in mind.”
The ability to effectively create and design while maximizing investment potential was one of the more challenging parts of Gabriel’s role. Not only was he pressed to stay on schedule, but he was expected to do so while monitoring budget spending and meeting all the technical requirements and safety regulations. “Safety was the number one priority for all of the designs aspects,” stated Gabriel. “Everything we do is related to ensuring that everything will operate and function safely. If we have any suspicion, whatsoever, that something is not safe, we stop operation. We re-analyze it, make it safe and then move forward.”
Gabriel indicated that one of his ultimate objectives was to have everyone work together.
“I would overlook everything,” said Gabriel, “to ensure that, as a team, we were not doing unnecessary work. I would attempt to see if the workings of one project could be used to fuel another, in an effort to avoid reinventing the wheel. As I was able to look at every aspect from a distance, I could approach engineers from different disciplines and see if any of their work overlapped, to make things run as smooth as possible.”
A thorough understanding of the processes required for a methanol plant is necessary for the selection of pumps, valves and hoses that will give life to the production facility. Specifying the types and grades of equipment required at the plant was a collaborative effort between Gabriel and the product specific experts.
There are two prevalent types of pumps in a methanol plant; pumps for water and pumps for hydrocarbons (methanol). While a great deal of consideration is put into specifying the criteria for both pump types, the specifications for the methanol pumps tend to be more stringent.
“The most complex pumps are the Boiler Feed Water pumps known as BFW pumps, these pumps are driven by steam turbines and can pushes up to 1000 psi,” explained Gabriel. “With lube oil cooling system and a double seal to ensure there are no spills, there are a number of precautions in place that ensure it operates safely. How to specify all of these aspects, in detail, is where the challenge lies.”
As each specification has an associated cost, it is important that each request be relevant. “What makes this process especially difficult is the amount of pump knowledge required to make effective and efficient specifications,” stated Gabriel. “After my initial assessment, I tend to seek out a pump expert to go over my ideas. Together, we will discuss what I want, the reason for my choices and ultimately, the specifications for the pump in question.”
The number of valves used in a mega methanol plant exceeds expectations. When asked, Gabriel expressed that “there are literally thousands of valves involved in a project like this one. There are probably 700 control valves in this plant, and that estimate does not take into account any of the manual valves used throughout the facility.” The valves he found to be the most engaging were critical process valves; high pressure steam valves, gas valves, methanol valves and oxygen valves. Each of these valve types requires extra attention and are typically custom made to suit the project’s needs.
“In an effort to reduce risk of leaks, most of our valves are designed with very specific specifications in place,” explained Gabriel. “Unique size requirements as well as the need for specialized materials results in very long lead times and a lot of planning.” In anticipation of these lead times, Gabriel would spend extra time ensuring that all the designs and specifications were exact. His diligence and meticulous work helped keep the project on track and limited the occurrence of costly delays caused by modifications to pre-existing orders.
“With critical valve processes, valve failure is not an option,” stated Gabriel. “There is zero tolerance for any valve malfunctions at this stage of the project, so all efforts are taken to ensure that nothing negative will happen.”
Sense of Accomplishment
“The most rewarding part of my job was seeing what I requested to design come to fruition,” reflected Gabriel. After completing the engineering phase Gabriel moved to the site as Lead commissioning engineer, to assist commissioning and the start-up of the Methanol plant. With his knowledge, George was a lead team player in the commissioning team. He was able to bridge the gap between engineering and commissioning, through the experience he gained as the design evolution lead to the current design. “In many cases the commissioning team was asking why this was done that way? Here I was able to assist and explain the design progress and history that lead to the current design,” stated Gabriel. “I started with a green field and ended with a running plant in front of me. It was an amazing feeling.”
The ability to go to a site and observe all the different procedures of a project is highly beneficial for a process engineer. It provides them with the opportunity to assess what they are designing and asking for. “By being on site as lead commissioning engineer I was able to analyze if everything I requested made sense and could modify my requests if I saw something that could be done more efficiently,” said Gabriel. “It was an excellent way to gain experience.”
Since the completion of Natgasoline Mega Methanol Plant in April 2018, Gabriel has become an Engineering Manager, at South Louisiana Methanol, overseeing the engineering and design of a new, 5,800t a day, methanol plant in the Louisiana area. With that capacity the plant is considered to be the largest producing methanol facility in the world. In George’s new role he is leading the owners engineering team and overlooking the EPC contractor, to ensure on time and safe delivery of the plant.
As methanol is a raw material for so many industries, and can be used in a wide range of products, it has become a ‘clearer solution’ for a number of companies. The experience Gabriel gained, from working on the first mega methanol plant, can therefore be considered invaluable as it provides him with a great understanding of how all the processes of a plant function. The transferability of his skills and the progressive nature of the industry has provided Gabriel with an excellent opportunity to continue working towards a ‘clearer solution.’ His proficiency with many of the products found in these facilities, coupled with the ability to impart knowledge about what methanol is produced from and what it is used for, has made Gabriel an ideal candidate for the dynamic role of Engineering Manager.