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  • Writer's pictureRon Kotrba

Vertex Energy suffers failure in feedstock-pumping system during start-up of renewable diesel unit

Following Vertex Energy’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the company’s renewable diesel unit at its Mobile, Alabama, refinery, held April 28, the facility’s feedstock-pumping system suffered a critical equipment failure.

“These pumps are responsible for supplying feedstock to the renewable diesel hydrocracker,” said James Rhame, chief operating officer, during a first-quarter earnings call May 9.

Vertex Energy reached mechanical completion March 31 and the ribbon-cutting a month later marked the transition from commissioning to the start-up phase.

Once running at full rate, initial renewable diesel volumes are expected to be between 114 million gallons and 143 million gallons per year (mgy), with a ramp up to approximately 200 mgy upon installation of additional required infrastructure.

The company stated that soybean oil is initially serving as the primary feedstock for renewable diesel manufacturing.

The feedstock-pumping failure occurred during unit start-up sequencing before any hydrotreated fuel was actually produced.

“Upon failure our safety system worked as designed, and our team responded appropriately to bring the unit down in a safe and controlled manner, preventing further impacts, including preserving the catalyst in our hydrocracker,” Rhame said.

The event was isolated to the feed-pumping system with no known effects on the reactor or other processing equipment, Rhame said, adding there were also no impacts to the conventional refining capability.

“These are brand new pumps designed specifically for this case,” Rhame said. “What we found is they were designed for the product we had. However, there’s a transitionary period during start-up they were not designed for. As result, we damaged the pumps.”

Rhame added that the damaged feedstock pumps are positive-displacement pumps.

The manufacturer is currently repairing them and will return the equipment once the rework is completed, company officials said.

“Currently the renewable diesel unit is safely parked, and we have a number of internal and external expert resources engaged in root-cause analysis, repair and restart,” Rhame said. “We expect repairs to be completed prior to the end of the second half of May, after which we plan to reinstall and resume the start-up sequence of the renewable diesel unit.”

Management confirmed the availability of the necessary parts to repair these specialty pumps, as these components were purchased prior to the failure in case of any potential operational issues.

It was stated on the call that the failure “was more mechanical than human error.”

Rhame added that Vertex Energy is putting hardware and changes in place to protect the feed system in the future, including a management-of-change (MOC) process and on-site training for personnel.

Benjamin P. Cowart, president and CEO of Vertex, said, “I have faith in our team’s ability to resolve the issue with minimal delay.”


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