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Reverse Deterioration in Coke Drums

Aging coke drums are like aging knees. You use them a lot; they wear out. You think the only choice is to replace them, but sometimes you figure out how to avoid that time and expense.

Suncor U1 Coke DrumsSuncor has 6 coke drums dating back to 1967 that are still in production. My knees date back to 1954, and I’m not so sure about their production.

I was an avid volleyball player for 30 years. I played 2 to 3 times a week for about 2 hours. That’s a lot of jumping to block and spike. A few years ago they got extremely sore, so I went to a surgeon. He x-rayed them(like getting laser scans on your coke drums) which revealed the cartilage was worn away on the right side of my knee. He suggested a brace to extend my knee life. That worked for a year, then they started to swell and I couldn’t sleep at night because of the pain. We scheduled surgery for a total metal knee replacement for May 2016, right after RefComm® Galveston. He suggested in the mean time that I do physical therapy.

The physical therapist helped me understand how my body was misaligning and compensating for the weak and missing components. I adopted her exercises and added low-impact biking. Three months later, I reported to the surgeon for my pre-op visit.  He cancelled the surgery, since I could do all my normal activities except volleyball and running. I had no discomfort, so there was no need for a titanium knee.

coke drum leak during quenchSuncor has one of the oldest and thinnest sets of coke drums in operation in the world. They suffered accelerated deterioration, unpredicted cracks, and loss of containment.

After utilizing a rigorous strategy of inspections, assessments, and long-term repairs over the last nine years, the reliability and safety of operating these drums improved to the point that replacement plans were canceled and the time between turnarounds is being considered for an increase.

The core of new strategy is the understanding that bulging and cracking in coke drums are inevitable and that with the right inspection, assessment, and repair tools, a systematicproactive integrity program can extend their economic life virtually indefinitely.

Pierre DuPlessis, retired from Suncor, and Mahmod Samman, Houston Engineering Solutions, developed the management strategy that was used on these drums.  It has a significant impact on the reversal of deterioration trends which appears to be unique in industry.

As a result, plans to replace the drums were canceled and the time between turnarounds is being considered for an increase.  During their presentation “Successful Reversal of Deterioration in an Old Set of Coke Drums” at RefComm®Galveston 2017, they compared the results from this set of drums to another set at the same facility that was managed differently. Learn more about successfully managing coke drum deterioration at RefComm.

Oh and my knee – the physical therapy worked.  My wife and I went for a 10.4 mile hike on Saturday, and it’s been over a year since I told the surgeon he could put his knife away.   -Paul

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Posted by: Paul R Orlowski

Paul Orlowski is General Manager for the Refining Community which includes,,, Resid Hydrocracking and SDA. They consult at refineries around the world. They've hosted 36 technical conferences around the globe, trained 1,000's and completed very beneficial consulting and troubleshooting projects. Paul co-founded Inc in 1998 with Gary Pitman. Evan Hyde later joined the team. Besides being an educator and software applications engineer, he worked 18 years at ARCO and BP refineries near Seattle, WA USA. Previously he worked for Science Applications International Corporation and Dealer Information Systems. In 2019 look for #RefComm Galveston Coking | CatCracking | Resid Hydrocracking and RefComm® Rotterdam Coking | CatCracking. In 2020 Galveston; Gdansk, Poland and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Singapore.