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Sun 12 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Testing the industry

A petrochemical surge calls for an increasing amount of laboratory testing - third-party providers are filling the void.

A petrochemical surge calls for an increasing amount of laboratory testing - third-party providers are filling the void.

Every petrochemicals manufacturer needs to test its products scientifically; it has to if it is to determine the quality of the product, identify any impurities, and thus ensure that they meet all contractual specifications.

Rather than testing products in-house, however, companies are increasingly turning to third-party providers to out-source their laboratory testing needs. Such an approach allows producers to focus on their core competencies, increase operational flexibility and lower total costs.

Third party testers are increasingly being used since they present an un-biased source of information that can go between the seller and purchaser. If any issues arise, then our reports and certifications can be used in a court of law as concrete, un-biased evidence. - Ravi Parameswaran, Middle East laboratories manager for Intertek.

"It is absolutely essential for all petrochemicals companies to test their products and this means that the testing industry has seen a surge in demand, particularly in the Middle East where a huge number of new facilities are coming online now," says Ravi Parameswaran, Middle East laboratories manager for Intertek.

"Third party testers are increasingly being used since they present an un-biased source of information that can go between the seller and purchaser. If any issues arise, then our reports and certifications can be used in a court of law as concrete, un-biased evidence."

Through out-sourcing testing, there is real potential to save on financial costs. If a company is to test products themselves, a vast amount of lab set-up is required.

This involves the purchase of an array of costly laboratory equipment and finding highly skilled staff to run the laboratories. All of such outlays can be avoided by out-sourcing to a company that already has the infrastructure and staff in place to meet requirements.

Down the chain

The testing of petrochemicals products is not a process confined to one section of the supply-chain; rather the product must be tested at every stage of the chain to ensure the quality is as prescribed.

Given the high value of the products involved and the major technical difference that it can make if there are any impurities are found, testing is called for in the refinery or initial manufacturing facility, before embarking on any journey, upon arrival at its destination and before it is used for the manufacturing of any end-product.

"Companies constantly need to test their chemicals and this is not always in the most convenient locations. In order to meet demand, we have chosen to locate at most of the major ports throughout the world so that no matter where the shipment is traveling from and then to, we will be there to test. We can organise an inspection anywhere and make sure that the product is in compliance with any contractual obligations," explains Parameswaran.

The standards against which testing is carried out vary according to the individual product and the end to which they will be used. If they are to be used for pharmaceutical products then purity standards are much more stringent than if destined for use in a product that is not made for human consumption.

"The US and Europe have their own specifications, but most of the time the product is tested against standards that the manufacturer themselves determines. Testing is, therefore, really driven by the manufacturer. For example, Sabic has its own specifications for product quality, as do all other petrochemical manufacturers," says Parameswaran.

Changing methods

The central task assigned to laboratories is to determine the purity of the product. While various techniques and pieces of equipment exist, two particular forms of analysis have become central to petrochemical testing.

Gas chromatography (GC) is one form of analysis that is frequently used in determining each of the constituent parts of a chemical. The gas chromatograph uses a flow-through narrow tube known as the column, through which different chemical constituents of a sample pass in a gas stream.They do so at different rates depending on their various chemical and physical properties. As the chemicals exit the end of the column, they are then detected and identified electronically.

"If you wish to enlarge the impurities to a higher recording level so that you can determine the level of contamination more easily, then mass spectrometry is used. The technique identifies the chemical composition of a compound or sample based on the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles," explains Parameswaran.

"Testing has changed tremendously in recent years, much in-line with the changing nature of the products themselves and the level of purity required. Many new instruments are now entering the market and new techniques are being used all of the time," states Parameswaran.

Testing has changed tremendously in recent years, much in-line with the changing nature of the products themselves and the purity required. Many new instruments are now entering the market and new techniques are being used all of the time. - Ravi Parameswaran, Middle East laboratories manager for Intertek.

"One major example is the change in the way we test the density of a product. This was originally tested through use of a hydrometer or technometer, but now we have automated digital density meters. We simply inject the product into the meter and the machine automatically determines the density. It now takes only 20 seconds to determine the result."

The development of digital technology has ultimately made testing much quicker, but also more considerably more reliable. Tests that previously may have taken six or seven days, can now be completed within 48 hours or less. Such a time saving allows laboratory staff to test a much higher number of samples within the previous time-scale - increasing the reliability of results.

"Another major development has been the significant amount of computer software that we now use to help us with our work, and it has also made life much easier for our customers. The software helps us to determine the component parts of the chemicals and upload them onto the internet so that any of our customers can go online and check the data with ease. The software fits with the type of equipment that we are using, for example, GC has its own matching software."

The Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is one of a number of comprehensive software packages now frequently used within petrochemical laboratories.

The software helps in the management of samples, the operation of instruments and various other functions such as invoicing and work flow automation.

Instruments used in the laboratory can be hooked-up to the LIMS system. They can then receive instructions and list of work from the LIMS and even return finished results, including raw data, back to the central system.

Laboratory personnel can then perform calculations, documentation and review results using the online information. Crucially, the system also enable external parties to follow-up on the progress test, review results and print out analysis certificates and other documentation that they need.

"Laboratories have now become much more streamlined and efficient as a result of all the computer software and digital technology that can now be harnessed. Not only are results more reliable, but we can also produce them extremely quickly and enable our customers to have ready-access to them," declares Parameswaran.

Things to come

"Given all of the developments in the field of petrochemical testing, we now require far fewer people to carry out the tests in the laboratories. Are workforce has certainly reduced, but the nature of it has changed somewhat. Previously, we may have brought people in who had only a bachelors or masters degree. Now we require far more people who have PhDs and with a vast amount of experience. It takes much longer to train people in using these new pieces of equipment, so they have to have a high-aptitude."

As with most industries in the Middle East, finding a workforce to staff such high-tech laboratories is one of the major impediments to future developments.

"The situation is improving and more people are getting the appropriate level of education and training in the Middle East, but it will still be quite a number of years before there are a sufficient number of expert laboratory staff to meet the ever increasing needs of the Middle Eastern sector," concludes Parameswaran.

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