PLANT

Clean at sonic speed


November 27, 2008
by Corinne Lynds

Tech Sonic Services Ltd.’s ultrasonic cleaning technology extends product life by removing heavy or light bitumen, tar, grease and other gas/oil products from any metal item.
Photo: Tech Sonic Services Ltd

Gunked-up, dirty old parts that fail give Alberta’s busy maintenance crews plenty of headaches. But a cleaning remedy, developed by Tech Sonic Services Ltd., extends part life and as a result, reduces costly downtime.

The seven-year-old company, based in Fort McMurray, has developed a fast, easy method of removing heavy or light bitumen, tar, grease and other gas/oil products from any metal item by immersion in an ultrasonic tank.

“Our services are typically used when steam, high-pressure washing and sandblasting are not sufficient for fast and thorough contaminant removal,” explains Lash Phillips, operations manager at Tech Sonic. “We can perform these services in a fraction of the time required by conventional methods.”

Ultrasonic activity works on similar principles to sound waves. Electrical energy is converted to mechanical energy through the piezoelectric effect on ceramic transducers. These transducers vibrate, causing positive and negative pressure waves that generate cavitation bubbles that form on the object being cleaned. When these bubbles burst, they generate pressures up to 10,000 psi and temperatures up to 5,540 degrees C, which separate the contaminants from the surface without damaging the component.

This bursting action, in conjunction with specialized chemicals, removes bitumen much faster than conventional methods of pressure washing, steam, chemical dip tanks and manual scrubbing.

Ultrasonic technology also uses very little water and the cleaning solution does not contain harmful chemicals that might settle into tailing ponds.
Thoroughly studied by health, safety and environmental groups, Tech Sonic’s cleaning method is deemed extremely safe. There is never any direct interaction with chemicals, and the proprietary chemical used in the process is a water-based degreaser.

“It’s only slightly more aggressive chemically than dishwashing liquid,” laughs Phillips. “The chemical medium simply enhances our cleaning times.”

In less than one hour, Tech Sonic can clean an average of five tons of any kind of equipment. It has also developed products that perform well on aluminum, steel, brass, copper, magnesium coatings, glass, plastic, many forms of rubber and some fabrics.

Energy producers Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude Canada Ltd., both in Fort McMurray, and the Alberta Research Council, were all involved in the development of the technology. As the technology evolved, so has the company. Today it’s more of a solutions provider than a typical manufacturer. “Most of the work we do in industrial refineries is emergency response work on location.”

In fact, Tech Sonic’s long-term partnership with Suncor was born out of just such an emergency stoppage at its plant.

“One of the main things that drives bitumen through the pipe is called a drive pump,” explains Phillips. “Suncor brought four of these units to us and we were able to restore them in about 12 to 13 hours.”

A seemingly simple transaction on the surface, but in the past it took 12 to 13 days using competitive technologies to restore these types of pumps.

“We were pretty pleased with the turn-around time since it was the first time we had tackled something like this,” says Phillips. “But Suncor was literally amazed. They had their plant back in production 12 days sooner than anticipated. As you can imagine, that was a massive cost-savings for them.”