The ins and outs of the water and process industries: An interview with Mel Esmacher, Consulting Engineer

Mel Esmacher, Senior Consulting Engineer at SUEZ's Water Technologies & Solutions, sat down with Stainless Steel World Americasto discuss some of the challenges he sees in the water and industrial process systems, and how using different grades of stainless steels and corrosion-resistant alloys (CRAs), and keeping an open mind to different possibilities, is crucial to finding the solutions to these challenges. By Catarina Muia
A spark of curiosity

Esmacher has always had a curiosity for how things are made, and an interest in physics and chemistry. Prior to graduating from the University of Michigan from the Materials and Metallurgical Engineering program, he immediately started his career by working at a summer internship in the automotive industry in metallurgical testing.

“The internship reinforced my desire to do failure analysis and material selection. Because the more you know about how parts are made, and later, how a part degrades in service, how to optimize material selection in terms of cost versus performance; all these factors come to the forward,” Esmacher explains. “So, I really thought materials and metallurgical engineering was a great way to learn about those manufacturing processes, and the forensic work of failure analysis in corrosion investigation. And when this job opportunity came up in 1982 to work in a metallurgy lab in the water and process industries, I thought it was a great, great match.”

A ‘typical’ day

There’s no such thing as a ‘typical working day’ for Esmacher, being a Senior Consulting Engineer at SUEZ’s Water Technologies & Solutions, and is based in Houston, Texas. “One thing that’s consistent is problem solving, that’s something we do every day. However, each day is still different depending on what we’re working on and investigating.” 

In his role, Esmacher’s main responsibility is to help with the most difficult customer-related problems being faced in the water and process industries. “We have a lot of customers across many locations, so there’s always something new to look at, or something to follow-up with.” In addition, Esmacher also helps to conduct reviews, and verify the design and performance of new equipment in the marketplace. In the backend, he reviews if something doesn’t work correctly at the customer level, “We look at anything involving corrosion failures, material selection in stainless steels, or which CRA would be better for specific applications to ensure corrective actions are taken.” The number one priority is safety with all of the applications, which is why it’s important to go through the review process to figure out why certain products aren’t working, and how to improve them.

When reviewing customers’ new or already- existing projects and products, it often involves an issue where stainless steel or a CRA has failed unexpectedly or didn’t give a service life that they thought it would. A lot of the time, his customers might be unaware of the various CRAs that are available to improve the corrosion resistance, based on the environments their applications are facing.

“So when there has been a misapplication of materials, and someone says, ‘Oh, just make it out of stainless steel’ as a generic term, that can cause unexpected failures. For example, the 300-series stainless steels that are commonly specified for water systems are susceptible to chloride stress corrosion cracking. However, if they had instead chosen a duplex stainless steel, it probably would have done much better for that particular environment,” Esmacher explains. “So, we try to intervene on the frontend during the design-phase, or in the backend if a part has failed, and then take the proper corrective action.”

Keeping an open-mind at all times is also an important part of the job, since there are so many possible factors that can influence the performance of stainless steel and CRAs in any given application. “You need to constantly bounce ideas off of each other and be open to evaluating new ideas related to material selection, versus the performance challenge that you’re faced with. This requires a commitment to the unknown. Being able to say, ‘I know this to be true, but I’m observing something that I know not to be true,” he explains. “This dichotomy is what drives me to have an innovative approach in material selection and in the forensic work. I can’t just write-up the report documenting the technical cause for the failure. I need to understand the mechanistic cause of the failure as well.”

The right materials

The components being used in the water and process industries experience a variety of environments and conditions, and therefore, need to be made from various CRAs that will be able to withstand them. That being said, cost is also a huge factor to take into consideration.

“We’re seeing a trend that’s migrating more toward the lower-cost stainless steels, particularly the low-cost duplexes or cladded stainless steels and cladded CRAs. This is due to competitive pressure, which has a lot of companies and a lot of customers who are looking at cost out,” says Esmacher. “You then have to look at how to get the same performance with less material cost in the frontend, and then what inspection protocol is needed to ensure the lower-cost material is actually working. This in turn may require upgrades in plant-based inspection/testing you need to invest in to make sure the lower-cost material survives. Thus, using cost-competitive materials takes a lot more engineering design on the frontend, and a lot of discussions.”

In the water and process industries, the usage of new stainless steels and CRAs tend to be more on the conservative side anyways. “We often saw customers being risk-averse in adopting newer alloys in the earlier days, as they may have had application problems in the field. For example, as 2205 duplex started to enter into the market, we found unexpected crevice corrosion and welding problems with duplex stainless steels that needed to be addressed. And the super-duplex grades can be even more difficult to weld to achieve an optimal microstructure for corrosion resistance, by comparison, if you do not follow specific welding guidelines. So, as a new material like duplex stainless steel was introduced, you would find a misapplication of welding approaches, which can cause weld-related failures, for example,” Esmacher explains. “So, what we count on today for cost-effective alloys, are duplex, super-duplex, and 6% molybdenum-grade austenitic stainless steels, which are extremely common for us to use now in tough-to-treat water systems. These alloys are now more readily utilized and accepted.”

Challenges in the industries

The water and heavy industrial process areas see a wide range of materials, from carbon steel and low-alloy steels in boiler systems, and cooling water applications, to stainless steels and CRAs, in hydrocarbon, chemical plants, and petrochemical plant operations. “On our equipment side, we have aggressive sea water conditions. Seawater reverse osmosis is a challenge that requires specific stainless steel alloys. So, we get involved with the material selection on the frontend, to avoid failures, and then run an autopsy on the backend if things didn’t work out as planned,” says Esmacher.

Variable operating conditions always cause pressures to produce a piece of equipment that meets specifications. The customer can experience an upset in environmental conditions that they perhaps didn’t anticipate, or they may be dealing with plant expansions that alter operating conditions. “They would then have to look at that and think about the impact of using the existing equipment under altered operating conditions. They might need to shut down and upgrade that portion of the process that’s going to be exposed to the concentrated chlorides or higher temperature ranges.”

Although some of the challenges are time-sensitive, such as a plant being in a shutdown and requiring immediate responses, not all plants need their challenges fixed in a hurry. “They’ll say, ‘Here’s a 60-year-old system, and we have sent some samples to your lab. Can you tell us what the expected service life is? Can we run it for another 10 years? What do we need to look for in terms of failure modes?’ So, we’ll do a life assessment on some parts sent to our lab to help customers manage their equipment, so they make it to the next turnaround time. So what changes do I need to make and more importantly, what monitoring do they need to put in place in order to do so? Although I’m not in the field, we work directly with our field engineers and the commercial team to solve these types of problems. And we also work directly with customer, and plant engineering to make those changes in the operation so the equipment will last longer.”

A step forward with technology

Developed by GE’s former Water & Process Technologies business, which has since been acquired by SUEZ, Esmacher discusses InSight*, a cloud-based asset performance management platform. “The process is to collect data in real-time, and also to alert when something like the pH is out of specification. So instead of a delay in response, that data will be acted on in real- time, as opposed to a day later when conditions are already changing and becoming more corrosive and fouling, which avoids putting customer assets at risk.” In conjunction with real-time data gathering via the innovative InSight platform, an important part of a failure analysis investigation is Esmacher’s habit of constantly asking questions about each challenge that has come his way. “Thinking about things like, why did it corrode? What is the consequence of events? Was it episodic? Was it one-time? Was it gradual? Asking those questions stimulate conversation at a plant-level, bringing us to, ‘Oh, if we could only catch this in time, we can take corrective action, and the asset will last longer.’ And categorically, I see it as falling under the four pillars of what Managing Aging Plants (MAP) is dedicated to address. That’s the maintenance, the materials, the safety, and then the future-proofing of the asset integrity.”

These general applications and what the company is doing with technology, is how they are helping their customers solve the toughest problems. “Our lab is dedicated to customer service in terms of having the ability to do water testing, deposit analysis testing, failure analysis, and employing the latest available technology, like having a scanning electron microscope (SEM) lab to assist in a corrosion analysis. In regard to a corrosion coupon analysis, you think, it’s just a metal strip that will allow you to look at the corrosion rate. However, it’s actually the report card showing how you’re doing, you can trend upsets over time, and as needed, you can analyze the metal coupon using surface analysis techniques, like the SEM to help troubleshoot.” Esmacher explains that if you are also able to do corrosion monitoring in real-time, this advantage gives them an opportunity to be more responsive and make changes to respond to that upset condition much faster.

Educating and learning

Esmacher has seen a great amount of diversity when it comes to corrosion failures, which he explains is helpful when collaborating not just inside the company, but with colleagues that may work at customer plant sites, such as subject matter experts. “They may not have seen a water system failure or a process failure like I have seen before. So, they are tapping into me or networking with me. When I go to conferences, such as the Managing Aging Plants USA Conference and Exhibition or Stainless Steel World Americas Conference and Exhibition, I make those network connections. It works both ways for me to understand what the customer challenges are, and then also, they contact me when they’re working on a difficult-to-treat system, or unexpected corrosion failure.”

Education is such a huge component in his job, both in educating himself and helping to educate others. “It is so important for us to share knowledge, especially when you have some engineers who are a little bit older, and retiring soon; we need to help the newer workers who are coming in. Making sure to transfer knowledge and educate others is imperative. I always keep in mind to ask questions like, ‘What is different about your product?’ or ‘What is different about your approach?’ So, I will attend conferences, write technical papers, and serve on discussion panels like we did last year because that way, there’s a constant transfer of knowledge.” To be innovative requires a constant vigilance to be open to new ideas.

*Opening image courtesy of Peninsula


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