Lubrication failures in Ammonia plants

Quite often, when lubrication failures occur, the first recommended action is to change the lubricant. However, when the lubricant is changed, the real root cause of the lubricant failure has not been solved. As such, the cause of lubrication failure will continue to be present and may escalate further to develop other problems.

Essentially, this can cause catastrophic future failures simply because the root cause was not identified, addressed and eradicated. Moreover, the seemingly “quick fix” of changing the lubricant, is usually seen as the most “cost effective” option. On the contrary, this usually becomes the most expensive option as the lubricant is changed out whenever the issue arises which results in a larger stock of lubricant, loss in man hours and eventually, a larger failure which can cost the company at least a month or two of lost production.

In this article, we investigate lubricant failures in Ammonia plants and their possible causes. Some Ammonia plants have a developed a reputation for having their product come into contact with the lubricant and then having lubrication failures occur. As such, most Ammonia plant personnel accept that the process materials can come into contact with the lubricant and usually change out their lubricants when such issues occur. However, there are instances, where the ammonia is not the issue and plant personnel needed to perform a proper root cause analysis to determine the root cause and eradicate it. Here are a couple of examples of such instances.

Livingstone (1) defies the Lubrication Engineers Handbook in their description of ammonia as an inert and hydrocarbon gas that has no chemical effect on the oil, stating that this is incorrect. Instead, Livingstone (1) lists the number of ways that Ammonia can react with a lubricant under particular reactions such as;

  • ammonia being a base that can act as a nucleophile which can interact with any acidic components of the oil (such as rust/corrosion inhibitors)
  • reaction of ammonia with carboxylic acids (oil degradation products) to produce amides which cause reliability issues
  • transesterification of any ester containing compound to create alcohol and acids and the reaction of ammonia with oxygen to form NOx which is a free radical initiator that accelerates fluid degradation.

As such, one can firmly establish that ammonia influences the lubricant and can lead to lubrication failures should that be the cause of the lubricant failure.      

The Use of Root Cause Analysis     

Van Rensselar (2) quotes Zhou as saying the best method for the resolving varnish is to perform a root cause analysis. Wooton and Livingstone (3) also advocate for the use of root cause analysis to solve the issue of varnish. They go on to explain that the characterization of the deposit aids in determining the root cause of the lubricant degradation. As such, Wooton and Livingstone (3) have developed a chart to assist in deposit characterization as shown below.


Deposit Characterization graphic from Wooton and Livingstone (3)

Wooton and Livingstone (3) discussed that with the above figure, once the deposit can be characterized then the type of lubricant degradation can be more accurately identified. As such, the root cause for the lubricant degradation can now be firmly established thereby allowing solutions to be engineering to control and reduce / eliminate lubricant degradation in the future. 

Case Studies

A case study from Wooton and Livingstone (3) was done with an Ammonia Compressor in Romania which experienced severe lubricant degradation. In this case study, they found that when the in-service lubricant was subjected to two standard tests namely MPC and RULER, both tests produced results within acceptable ranges. As such, there was no indication from these tests that the lubricant had undergone such drastic degradation as evidenced by substantial deposits within the compressor. Thus, it was determined that the deposits should be analysed as part of the root cause analysis.

For the deposits from the Ammonia compressor, Wooton and Livingstone (3) performed FTIR spectroscopy to discover that its composition consisted of mainly primary amides, carboxylic acids and ammonium salts. It was concluded that the carboxylic acids formed from the oxidation of fluid while in the presence of water. 

In turn, the carboxylic acids reacted with the ammonia to produce the primary amides. These amides consisted of ammonium salts and phosphate. As such, the onset of carboxylic acids within the system eventually leads to the lubricant degradation. Thus, an FTIR analysis for carboxylic acids was now introduced to this Ammonia plant as well as MPC testing to monitor the in-service lubricant.

Additionally, chemical filtration technology was implemented to remove carboxylic acids within the lubricant. These two measures allowed for the plant to be adequately prepared for lubricant degradation and avoid failures of this type in the future.

Another case study was done in Qatar with an ammonia refrigeration compressor which was experiencing heavy deposits due to lubrication degradation. For this Ammonia plant, high bearing temperatures and deposits were found on the bearing. 

Upon investigation, it was realized that the lubricant had been contaminated externally and there was restricted oil flow to the bearings. After a FTIR was performed it was deduced that that the deposits were organic in nature and there were several foreign elements including high levels of carbon and primary amides. 

From further root cause analysis, it was determined that the high temperatures observed were due to the lubricant starvation. Due to these high temperatures, oxidation initiated and with the high levels of contamination (mainly from ammonia within the process) this lead to degradation of the lubricant in the form of heavy deposits.

The bearing oil flow was increased and reduction in external contaminants were implemented. Oil analysis tests of Viscosity, Acid Number, Membrane Patch Calorimetry and Rotating Pressure Vessel Oxidation tests were also regularized in the preventive maintenance program. Thus, for this failure, some operational changes had to be made in addition to increased frequencies of testing. With these measures in place, there would be a reduced likelihood of future failures.

From the case studies mentioned, it can be concluded that ammonia systems have a higher possibility of undergoing lubricant degradation due to the contamination of the lubricant by ammonia gas / liquid due to its properties. However, it must also be noted that the ingression of ammonia into the lubrication system is not the only cause for lubrication failure.

Therefore, it is imperative that a proper root cause analysis be carried out to determine the varying causes for lubrication failure before the ingression of ammonia accepts full responsibility for any such failure.

References:

  1. Livingstone, Greg (Chief Innovation Officer, Fluitech International, United States America). 2016. E-mail message to author, March, 08.
  2. Van Rensselar, Jeanna. 2016. “The unvarnished truth about varnish”. Tribology & Lubrication Technology, November 11. 
  3. Wooton, Dave and Greg Livingstone. 2013. “Lubricant Deposit Characterization.” Paper presented at OilDoc Conference and Exhibition Lubricants Maintenance Tribology, OilDoc Academy, Brannenburg, Rosenheim, Germany, United Kingdom, January 22-24, 2013.
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