The Fuse

The Refinery Emissions Win-Win: One-on-One with ClearSign CEO Stephen Pirnat

by R. Kress | August 18, 2015

For most refinery operators in the U.S., emissions regulations can be onerous. Standards are becoming increasingly stringent, forcing operators to go on hiatus and replace existing equipment with new, low-emission burners. The process can prove to be cost prohibitive and time consuming. Once the compliant equipment is in place, operators can then be faced with some of the potential drawbacks of these low-emissions technologies, leaving them with long term, decreased throughput.

Against this backdrop, refinery operators often feel that emissions regulations are antagonistic for their bottom line.

Against this backdrop, refinery operators often feel that emissions regulations are antagonistic toward their bottom line. For Seattle-based ClearSign, a company that develops technology which optimizes and controls combustion processes for improved emissions, the regulations that refinery operators see as a crisis look like a major opportunity.

“The regulations that are good for the environment are also good for our company,” Stephen Pirnat, Chairman and CEO of ClearSign, tells the Fuse. He notes that the real paradigm shift is that his company’s branded Duplex technology can both cut emissions and save energy. “In the past, [complying with regulations has] had significant financial impact on our customers. But we believe we’ve found a way to reduce emissions that has a minimal cost impact on our customers. And it can be easily retrofitted to save fuel costs and energy. So the installation of our technology not only improves air quality but also allows our clients to meet the current and proposed emissions standards in a way that doesn’t pose the typical operational penalties on our customers that other low emissions technologies do.”

Right now, market conditions are favorable for refiners: Feedstock costs are low with weak crude prices while consumer demand for refined products is on the rise. With robust profits from strong downstream margins, it’s clear why refiners would see increased regulations as a threat to undermine the current rosy outlook. The fact that ClearSign’s Duplex technology can be quickly retrofitted onto existing equipment may ultimately be a game-changer in the relationship between refineries and regulators.

“Our technology doesn’t have that adversarial economic impact on companies,” Pirnat explains, “As a result, we’ve gotten a lot of support from regulators who see us as symbiotic to their efforts.”

So how exactly does Duplex technology work?

Rather than using the refinery heater’s own burner flame to radiate heat to the surrounding tubes, ClearSign installs a panel of its Duplex tiles above the flame. The original flame then catches on the tiles and the burner can be turned off entirely so that no open flame remains. With the flame now transitioned to the Duplex tiles—which are made up of thousands of tiny cells—the Duplex tiles are able to radiate heat with only an inch or two of flame. Doing so, ClearSign says, is much more efficient than using just the flame because combustion is carried out just inches above the tiles, allowing the fuel to be properly mixed before combustion even takes place—the key factor that Pirnat calls the “uniqueness of the technology.” The result, Pirnat explains, is a more controlled and tightly defined process.

Other emissions-reduction technologies like ultra low nitrogen oxide (NOx) burners employ a technique that lengthens flames to prevent the gas from forming. Pirnat explains that the problem with this technique is that it can result in flame impingement, forcing refinery operators to turn down the burner to compensate.

Pirnat hopes that ClearSign can help refineries see that emission reduction and flame impingement are not synonymous—and ultimately help them proceed in the right direction for energy savings and overall efficiency: “[ClearSign’s technology] acts as an inducement to refiners as a way to have clean air and reduce operating costs. It has them really shaking their heads [saying] ‘If I have to have clean air then it’s definitely going to cost me more money.’ We’re saying that that’s not the case.”

So how much fuel is the Duplex technology really saving?

According to ClearSign’s website, by shortening burning flames, the technology can achieve thermal efficiency gains between two and four percent and cut fuel consumption by one to two percent. That’s not a bad bonus for a technology whose primary purpose is to help refineries remain up-to-date with regulations.

While it may seem like ClearSign’s Duplex technology makes sense for new refineries—particularly in the developing world—to install from the beginning, right now, the company is seeing most of its business coming from retrofitting existing equipment here in the U.S. As Pirnat sees it, ClearSign has plenty of work to do already here in the States, even though the company’s technology has piqued some interest overseas.

“Our biggest opportunity in the refinery business will be to clean up what’s here [in the U.S.] rather than working on new stuff,” Pirnat says. “We can clean air and save energy at the same time. Even my mother doesn’t believe it.”