Steam Reformers

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Steam reforming is a process in which hydrocarbon feedstocks are converted into synthesis gas that contains hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The steam reforming process works by reacting high temperature steam with a hydrocarbon. Natural gas is commonly used as the feedstock for the production of hydrogen but fossil fuels, such as naphtha, liquid gas, or refinery off-gas, can also be used.

The Reforming Process

Natural gas steam reforming, also known as steam methane reforming (SMR) is the most prevalent process for hydrogen generation. Natural gas contains methane, which, in the presence of a catalyst, reacts with steam that has been heated to 700°C – 1,000°C to produce synthesis gas (predominantly comprised of hydrogen and carbon monoxide). These reactions take place in what are aptly referred to as steam reformers.

A steam reformer is made up of several sections that house the different reactions. The process begins in a furnace where the feedstock is mixed with high temperature steam. The steam and natural gas mixture then moves into heated reformer tubes that contain a catalyst.

The first reaction occurs as the mixture flows through the reformer tubes. In this stage of the process, methane and steam react to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The next stage in the process is the water-gas shift reaction. Here, the carbon monoxide produced in the first stage and steam are reacted with a catalyst which creates additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

The final stage occurs in the pressure swing adsorber. This is where any last bits of carbon dioxide and methane are removed from the process to produce clean hydrogen.

Reformer Tubes

As previously mentioned, reformer tubes are the components of steam reformers where the initial reactions take place between the steam and hydrocarbons. A typical reformer can contain 200 to 400 vertically hanging tubes that are heated externally by gas burners.

The service life of reformer tubes tends to be very limited. This is most often due to the intense stresses that reformers are put through as a part of their day to day operation. They undergo alternating thermal and mechanical stresses, carburization, and oxidation, both on the inside and outside. Reformer tubes also tend to be particularly vulnerable to creep, which can also lower their life expectancy.

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Articles about Steam Reformers
March/April 2024 Inspectioneering Journal

A detailed account of the multiple degradation mechanisms, including metal dusting and failure of thermowell assemblies, of a vintage primary reformer.

Authors: Nauman Waheed
March/April 2023 Inspectioneering Journal

Explore how more advanced modeling addresses the challenges of quantifying uncertainty and probability of failure to drive valuable inspections.

November/December 2021 Inspectioneering Journal

A historical review into the integrity of reformer furnaces since commissioning is discussed in this case study, along with other technical and engineering challenges, and the efforts to overcome them.

Authors: Iqbal Hussain
March/April 2020 Inspectioneering Journal

This article presents a comprehensive integrity management program for catalyst tubes, including elements on monitoring, inspection, data analysis, remaining life assessment, and control of human factors.

Authors: Baher Elsheikh
November/December 2014 Inspectioneering Journal

Steam reformers are critical assets for the successful operation of hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol plants. The steam reformer is also one of the most expensive assets in these facilities. Catalyst tubes inside the reformer are one of the most...

Authors: Kelsey Hevner
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March/April 2013 Inspectioneering Journal

Steam reformers are critical assets to many refining and chemical manufacturing plants and facilities, and it is well known that the reformer is one of the most challenging assets to maintain and operate. Common problems in reformer operations...

May/June 2005 Inspectioneering Journal

Carbon dioxide (CO2) corrosion is most typically found in boiler condensate return systems that are not adequately treated with corrosion inhibitors (typically amines). Dissolved CO2 in condensate forms carbonic acid (H2CO3) which corrodes steels...

Authors: John Reynolds
May/June 1997 Inspectioneering Journal

Reformer catalyst tubes are commonly manufactured from high strength, creep and corrosion resistant alloys. They are relatively thick walled and are usually produced by centrifugal casting. Their lives are limited by creep, driven by a combination...

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