Infrared Thermography in BP Amoco---Petrochemical Applications
John J. Nyholt
NDE Corporate Level III, Inspection Specialist
BP Amoco Upstream Technology Group
In the late 70’s, Amoco Oil Corp. began using infrared thermal imaging cameras to detect electrical faults in critical
equipment and to improve the reliability of fired heaters. Since then, the company has logged an exhaustive list of benefits
from the various applications of infrared technology. As plant operations and maintenance departments learn to rely more
heavily on thermal imaging to improve plant reliability, the more entrenched the method becomes in the daily production of
The petrochemical industry continues to find new uses for infrared thermal imaging cameras. At BP Amoco, infrared
technology continues to provide opportunities to improve plant operating safety, reliability, and cost of operations. In many
plants, implementing new infrared programs has become a priority. While many of our plants outsource infrared services,
some maintenance, inspection, and reliability personnel have used the high payback and the on the spot need of infrared
thermography to justify buying their own infrared thermal imaging camera systems. From my viewpoint as an in-house
nondestructive testing consultant, it’s surprising to see how approvals for infrared thermal imaging cameras are granted
before those for other categories of testing equipment.
As the number of in-house infrared systems grew in the past few years, the need for in-house specifications and best
practices became apparent. At a corporate Infrared User Group meeting in 1998, common goals were set by infrared
thermal imaging camera users across the corporation:
1. Standardize on one infrared thermography equipment manufacturer and software package.
2. Identify an industry specific infrared thermography level I and II course.
3. Generate in-house infrared thermography procedures and specifications.
4. Create a liaison between equipment manufacturers and the user.
5. Investigate new infrared thermography applications such as active thermal wave imaging.
6. Provide guidance to plants interested in implementing an infrared thermography program.
Since the 1998 Infrared User Group meeting, British Petroleum, Amoco, and Arco have merged into one company under
the BP logo. This rapid expansion has strained preventive maintenance and inspection resources, including infrared
thermography. New challenges lie ahead for what is now the third largest oil company in the world.
Keywords: BP Amoco, petrochemical, infrared thermography, user group, active thermal wave imaging, in-house program
1. ELECTRICAL APPLICATIONS
Perhaps the most significant cost saving infrared application in the company, electrical fault detection, motor and
transformer condition, distribution lines and substation inspections have saved millions of dollars in cost savings and/or
cost avoidance. Routine and pre-shutdown infrared surveys have significantly reduced the number of unscheduled
shutdowns and catastrophic equipment damage through risk ranked inspection schemes where critical equipment is ranked
under consequence and likelihood of failure. When a simple connection fault is detected and fixed, the worst-case scenario
is often used as the avoided cost basis (i.e., unscheduled shutdown of the equipment or even the plant). However while cost
avoidance is noted as a successful save, it is usually not as attractive to management as an infrared cost saving strategy
would be to their cost of operations. For example, using infrared thermal imaging cameras to save the quarterly amperage
consumption may be more valuable than proving what might have been if an urgent maintenance order was not performed.
Typical electrical anomalies are shown in Figures 1 and 2 below.
Figure 1. Poor Electrical Connection Figure 2. Transmission Wiring Hot Spots
2. ROTATING EQUIPMENT
Often used in conjunction with vibration analysis, infrared surveys are used to detect faulty shaft coupling alignment,
motor/pump bearings, mechanical seal performance, and cooling channel blockage. Rotating equipment engineering uses
infrared and vibration analysis data to trend the estimated remaining life of rotating equipment as well as to track the
performance of the equipment under normal loads.
3. HEAT AND PRODUCT LOSS
Infrared thermography has been valuable in detecting heat loss from leaking steam traps, leaking steam tracing under
insulation, and building heat or AC loss. Infrared is typically used in conjunction with air born acoustic emission testing for
detecting leaks in steam traps and other flow control devises.
In addition to heat loss, fugitive emissions of process liquids and/or gasses are a major concern for both the petrochemical
industry and government regulators. Pollution restrictions and the petrochemical company’s desire to restrict product loss
and show itself as a “green” steward of the environment have led to a growing role for IR in this area.
4. TANK PRODUCT AND SLUDGE LEVELS
The petrochemical industry obviously makes extensive use of above ground storage tanks in various shape, size and
purposes. These storage tanks are predominantly governed by API (American Petroleum Institute) codes. Infrared
thermography is one tank inspection method useful for detecting or verifying the product level of in tankage. As sludge,
water, and other non-soluble materials settle in the storage tank, they form a distinct boundary layer in the vessel. As these
materials vary in density and specific heat values (heat capacity), the boundary layer can usually be seen as a thermal
gradient at the outside surface of the tank wall. These sludge level measurements can be used to estimate cleaning intervals
as well as the cost of removing solids. Deducting the tank sludge levels from the product level inventory also reduces end
of the year taxable inventories. Measurements of product levels also assist in verifying level control performance and
inventory control. In one instance, thermography prevented a potentially serious safety instance where it detected a
hydrocarbon sludge level that exceeded the manway elevation of a tank scheduled to be opened for inspection. This sludge
level is shown in the tank image below (Figures 3 and 4).
Figure 3. Tank Bottom Sludge Figure 4. Sludge level Exceeds Manway
5. HEAT TRANSFER
Infrared thermal imaging cameras are used to estimate the heat transfer performance and efficiency of heat exchangers, air
coolers, and cooling towers. Infrared thermal imaging cameras can also evaluate the tower tray performance in process
towers. While fouling in heat transfer equipment can be detected by process flow measurements, the area or point of
blockage can be visualized with thermography.
In the image below (Figure 5), a mole sieve reactor outlet nozzle is surveyed to study the heat transfer rates during the
normal thermal cycling of the process. Nozzles in this service were experiencing thermal fatigue cracks.
Figure 5. Heat Transfer at Reactor Outlet Nozzle
6. FURNACE RELIABILITY
Thermographic furnace inspections are typically performed quarterly. Short wave thermographic imagers with an optional
flame filters are used to scan fireboxes for furnace tube hot spots, excessive scale, coking, flame impingement, and burner
performance. Thermal images provides a documented visual representation of where energy losses from poor heat transfer
or burner performance are occurring. The Estimated tube temperature measurements are used toward estimated remaining
life calculations as well as to identify hot spots that could lead to an unexpected tube failure. Infrared is also used to
validate burner optimization adjustments and furnace tube cleaning such as steam out and walnut shell blasting of external
deposits. When tube thermocouple readings are in question, Infrared is also used to approximate the actual tube skin
Infrared surveys access the firebox metal temperature (refractory condition), stack skin temperature, and the condition of
the firebox doors. In Figures 6, 7, and 8 below, a furnace design flaw created too short of a distance between the east burner
and the east wall. Flame impingement on the refractory door caused oxidation of the door structure, causing hot gases to
escape through the door.
Figure 6. Hot Spot on Process Furnace Door Figure 7. Flame Impingement on Furnace Door
Figure 8. Furnace Door Damage
7. HOT SPOT CONTROL OF REFRACTORY LINED EQUIPMENT
Petrochemical plants, particularly refining, use refractory lined vessels and piping systems in processes that involve
temperatures that exceed the design metal temperature of most carbon steel materials. Two design metal temperature
limitations occur for each type of carbon steel; one for stress rupture failure, and one for high temperature hydrogen attack.
Infrared thermal imaging cameras are crucial to the safe operation of these systems and infrared inspection intervals vary.
Many refractory lined reactors and catalytic cracking piping systems are surveyed weekly. Where fast detection of
refractory loss is desired, equipment may be painted with a temperature-indicating paint that changes color when a
maximum temperature is reached. Follow-up thermal imaging is then performed to confirm the hot spot condition as in the
images below (Figures 9 and 10).
Figure 9. Refractory lined Reactor Vessel Figure 10. Refractory Loss in Bottom Head
8. INFRARED THERMOGRAPHY PROGRAM
Setting up an infrared program in the petrochemical industry is probably similar to doing so in the utilities, automotive and
other industries. Perhaps the barriers to a successful company wide program are similar as well. Infrared thermal imaging
cameras, software, training, and support are expensive, and the cost of using outside service providers is also higher than
most other routine inspection methods. Subsequently, maintenance and inspection personnel interested in starting an in-
house infrared program usually have a tough sell with management. Both human and material resources are usually
stretched thin, and management tends to be suspicious of schemes that seek additional resources (all capital requests claim a
high payback). In BP Amoco, there is a mix of plants that use outside infrared vendors, in-house thermographers, and sites
that still seldomly use thermography. However as plants become more educated on extended value of infrared, they tend to
purchase their own infrared thermal imaging cameras in order to have them available at all times.
With the merging of three major oil companies, defining the size, geographics, and variety of petrochemical plants within
the new company can be difficult. Fortunately BP Amoco makes extensive use of electronic networks that identify target
audiences and work well for sharing information and resources. As the appropriate people from each company join these
networks, an accurate assessment of infrared usage across new organization will occur. One particular benefit of such
networks has been accelerated information flow. By networking, the education step for infrared thermal imaging camera
approvals appears to have been significantly reduced. The benefits have become well documented.
In 2001, a corporate infrared project will be proposed to leverage the resources and knowledge of the entire group towards
setting up in-house infrared programs as well as supporting sites that use external vendors. Such leverage is also useful in
dealing with infrared equipment and software suppliers. At group rates, we can reduce capitol costs and persuade industry
specific product development. infrared supplier alliances also provide for equipment and software standardization, reducing
the need to support a wide variety of systems.
In our opinion, the following steps are required for an infrared program:
1. Define the goals of the program and issue a mission statement for management approval. Define responsibilities
during this stage.
2. Evaluate instruments, tools, other equipment and techniques that will be used.
3. Define and submit funding requirements. Select equipment based on funding approval.
4. Select data collection points. What is the criticality of the equipment? What are the specific consequences of
failure? What is the likelihood of failure?
5. Develop reporting practices. What does management need to know to make decisions? Who needs access to the
6. Build data bases and track histories. Identify critical equipment information from trending. Establish data
acceptance criteria and inspection intervals.
7. Ongoing practice. Recognize that there will be a learning curve that will cause changes to the program.
9. PETROCHEMICAL OPPORTUNITIES FOR INFRARED TECHNOLOGY
At a time when the petrochemical industry is striving to improve the safety and reliability of aging assets, cost cutting
pressures are straining maintenance and inspection resources. Maintenance and inspection philosophies are turning away
from prescriptive scheduling in favor of more risked based maintenance and inspection schemes. These schemes typically
reduce and focus resources to exactly where and when they are needed, which in turn will optimize their equipment
reliability programs. For each piece of equipment, the consequences and likelihood of failure are risk ranked, and the
limited maintenance and inspection resources are targeted on priority equipment. The down side is that these strategies
reduce the amount of available downtime for maintenance and inspection, and there is a heavier reliance on the probability
of detection (POD) of the inspection methods used. Inspection methods that can inspect equipment on-line are then of
particular importance as they are capable of detecting problems during operation, monitor known problems, and prevent
unscheduled shut downs. Infrared thermography is among those technologies that could be used as a nondestructive testing
To date, infrared applications within BP Amoco have been limited to “passive infrared”; where objects are viewed in the
infrared spectrum at their steady temperature without altering the temperature or other attributes of the target for the
purpose of extracting further information. However “active infrared” is another area of infrared technology that could also
be useful to the petrochemical industry. Active infrared is as a means of extracting sub-surface information of a component
by manipulating the steady state temperature of the specimen while observing the infrared response at the object surface.
Specialized infrared cameras, equipment, and image enhancement software have advanced and expanded active infrared
applications, some of which are capable of determining material properties or flaw detection.
All NDE flaw detection methods involve the indirect measurement of material properties or characteristics by exposing the
material to some sort of probing medium (sonic energy, radiation energy, magnetic and electrical energy, or other media),
obtaining some kind of response of the probing medium to changes in the materials continuity, and interpreting these
responses as evidence (or absence) of indications. Active infrared follows this methodology by inducing a change in
temperature (delta-T) into the subject material, and observing sequential thermographic images at the material surface as it
returns to its steady state temperature. as thermal energy is added (or removed) suddenly, a thermal pulse traverses through
the material in accordance with its density and thermal conductivity. When this thermal pulse encounters a planer boundary
(back wall, lamination, pitting, etc.), it will reflect and return to the outer surface. When detected by an infrared imager, the
time of flight (TOF) may be compared with a standard, or the different thermal transients may be qualitatively compared to
that of the back wall. Various material conditions can affect the extent and timing of thermal gradient formation at either
surface (front or back) of the test specimen. Passive infrared by itself will only detect these conditions when they are severe
enough to provide a delta-T at the steady state (operating) temperature, and only while the equipment is on-line. Material
thickness, pitting, or other defects are not likely to be detected.
Active infrared could be used as a screening tool that could be applied more globally that pulse-echo ultrasonics. The
amount of specimen surface area tested in a single application would be limited to that that could be instantaneously flash
heated or cooled and viewed by an infrared imager within a reasonable incident angle to the specimen surface. However
active infrared and pulse echo ultrasonics each have advantages and limitations:
• Thermal waves are highly attenuated and therefore limited by material thickness (typically 3/8” in steel).
• Quantitative wall thickness measurements would not be practical without complex control of test variables and
thermal wave imaging equipment and analysis software.
• In pulse echo ultrasonic testing, contact with the material surface is required. Temperature limitations that practically
do not exist in active infrared would impede or prevent testing.
• In most cases pulse echo ultrasonics will not detect ID deposit buildup. The high acoustic impedance between the
base metal and deposit would result in nearly 100% reflection of sound at the base metal to deposit interface, which
would not indicate the presence of the deposit. By comparison a thermal wave would be absorbed by the deposits, as
indicated by an increase in the time required for the outer surface to return to its steady state temperature.
• Compared to the Passive infrared method for furnace tubes, active infrared would detect smaller amounts of deposits
earlier than Passive infrared. When the furnace is out of service deposits and material thinning could be screened by
active infrared, followed by pulse echo measurement of excessive material thinning.
Active infrared techniques vary in sensitivity and complexity. The easiest, although least sensitive method is the “Step”
method, which is performed as the piping or equipment is brought on line. The process heat provides a delta-T, with higher
thermal gradients appearing at thin spots, refractory loss, or heavily pitted areas before appearing at the background (full
thickness) area. Localized heavy internal deposits are also detected as they insulate the metal from the heat of the process.
The local outer surface of material reaches the steady state temperature after the non-deposit areas.
Another version of the step method involves heating or cooling the surface of a specimen without regard to the time or
duration of the induced delta-T. In this technique, local heating or cooling from water, steam, vapor mist, or other uniform
media produces a delta-T that saturates the full thickness of the material. The source is then removed and the material
surface monitored by an infrared imager for thermal gradient patterns. This technique may be the most practical active
infrared as it is the most simple to apply and can quickly estimates the material condition for detecting trouble areas that
could be followed up by other NDE methods. Recently, hand held magnetic induction heaters have been successfully used
to detect corrosion while using standard infrared imagers and without the need for advanced image enhancement software.
Step method experiments have successfully detected 25%-75% through wall indications in a .25” thick carbon steel
The most reliable, repeatable, and quantitative active infrared method is the Pulse Echo Thermal Wave Imaging system
(PETWI). In this technique, one or more 6000-joule flash lamps are “pulsed” at the specimen. The distribution of the light,
source to object distance, and interference from external infrared emitters are controlled by a light box containing the lamps
and an infrared imager is incorporated in the rear of the box. A PC utilizing special thermo graphic imaging software
controls the heat of the flash, pulse timing, and image capture rate. Precise control of system events, and the use of image
enhancement options provide for expanded data collection and analyses techniques. For example, data displayed as energy
level histograms provide considerably more data interpretation than is available by simply viewing and interpreting infrared
images. The speed of active infrared is faster than that of conventional ultrasonics, but would not match magnetic flux
leakage for tank bottom inspection or automated digital radiography for piping. An example of thermal wave imaging of a
pipe with internal deposits is shown in Figure 11 below.
Figure 11. Thermal Wave imaging
While active infrared has yet to prove itself for accurate thickness measurements, the likelihood of its success is increasing.
If accomplished, we may be able to take accurate thickness measurements on line, regardless of the objects temperature.
For now, current active infrared techniques are capable of making qualitative determinations of thinning, pitting,
laminations, deposit build up (or absence), refractory loss, and suspect areas of corrosion under insulation (through
detecting soaked or poorly performing insulation). As with any new NDE application, the advantages, disadvantages, and
application boundaries for each technique need to be defined, and reassessed as developments occur.
Petrochemical maintenance and inspection strategies will continue to discover new applications for infrared thermography.
Temperature is often an indicator of material, process, and mechanical conditions. When used in conjunction with an
organized infrared program, infrared technology can be properly positioned into each plant’s maintenance and inspection
strategy without re-inventing the wheel. In order to reach its full potential in the petrochemical industry, industry specific
infrared applications would also have to be defined and studied. For example, active infrared applications for steel and steel
alloys need to be refined and their limits of practical use defined, data base technology should be developed for trending the
life of refractory lined equipment, and infrared imager technology should be developed with petrochemical needs in mind.
Above image used with permission from Thermal Wave Imaging, Inc.