Innovation and Technology

Pump up the Innovation: Increasing Sustainability and Savings through Vacuum Pump Optimization

August 22, 2019

The wash process is a critical part of producing high-quality steelmaking coal and involves complex filter and vacuum pump systems. When problems arise in this system, it can cause downtime and impact productivity. Recognizing an opportunity for improvement, the team at our Elkview Operations stepped up with innovative solutions to seriously pump up plant performance.

Their initiative has led to significant reductions in water and electricity use and, most importantly, zero system downtime since installation seven months ago. These are no small improvements: they translate to cost savings of around $1.5 million annually.

What does a vacuum pump do, anyways? At the Wash Plant, vacuum pumps are used to remove fine coal from water and other debris to help produce a marketable product. But historically the pumps have often become overloaded or flooded, resulting in up to 20 hours of downtime per year. Connor Schriver, Engineer in Training, Plant Maintenance, decided to leverage his experience working with pump systems and started to investigate how he could improve pump reliability.

“When diagnosing the issue, we saw that a few key changes could lead to immediate benefits”, says Connor.

Connor and the team tested solutions and decided to make several upgrades to the system, including installing higher horsepower vacuum pump motors, adding a flow meter and installing an automated control system to help prevent pump overload and flooding that results in downtime. 

In the seven months since the project was completed, there has been zero downtime of the vacuum pump system, along with additional benefits.

The more powerful motors don’t need to work as hard, so not only do they avoid becoming overloaded, they also use 19.7% less electricity. The upgraded flow meter and automated control system have helped prevent pump flooding and reduced seal water consumption from 1,000 gallons per minute (GPM) to less than 200 GPM.

“We chose to implement the motor upgrades with sustainability of the system in mind,” says Connor.

This increase in productivity of the wash plant translates to direct savings of approximately $1.5 million per year. Reduced maintenance requirements and lower energy use bring additional cost savings, as well as environmental benefits.

These upgrades have also created opportunities for even more energy savings. Future modifications to the filter and vacuum system will increase its ability to dry coal, leading to further savings and reducing reliance on natural-gas powered coal dryers.

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First Published on August 22, 2019