Flaring is a volatile organic compound (VOC) combustion control process in which the VOCs are piped to a remote, usually elevated, location and burned in an open flame in the open air using a specially designed burner tip, auxiliary fuel, and steam or air to promote mixing for nearly complete (> 98%) VOC destruction. Completeness of combustion in a flare is governed by flame temperature, residence time in the combustion zone, turbulent mixing of the components to complete the oxidation reaction, and available oxygen for free radical formation.
Combustion is complete if all VOCs are converted to carbon dioxide and water. Incomplete combustion results in some of the VOC being unaltered or converted to other organic compounds such as aldehydes or acids.
The flaring process can produce some undesirable by-products including noise, smoke, heat radiation, light, SO , NO , CO, and an additional source of ignition where not desired. However, by proper design these can be minimized.
Flares are generally categorized in two ways: (1) by the height of the flare tip (i.e., ground or elevated), and (2) by the method of enhancing mixing at the flare tip (i.e., steam-assisted, air assisted, pressure-assisted, or non-assisted). Elevating the flare can prevent potentially dangerous conditions at ground level where the open flame (i.e., an ignition source) is located near a process unit. Further, the products of combustion can be dispersed above working areas to reduce the effects of noise, heat, smoke, and objectionable odors.
In most flares, combustion occurs by means of a diffusion flame. A diffusion flame is one in which air diffuses across the boundary of the fuel/combustion product stream toward the center of the fuel flow, forming the envelope of a combustible gas mixture around a core of fuel gas. This mixture, on ignition, establishes a stable flame zone around the gas core above the burner tip. This inner gas core is heated by diffusion of hot combustion products from the flame zone.
Cracking can occur with the formation of small hot particles of carbon that give the flame its characteristic luminosity. If there is an oxygen deficiency and if the carbon particles are cooled to below their ignition temperature, smoking occurs. In large diffusion flames, combustion product vortices can form around burning portions of the gas and shut off the supply of oxygen. This localized instability causes flame flickering, which can be accompanied by soot formation.
As in all combustion processes, an adequate air supply and good mixing are required to complete combustion and minimize smoke. The various flare designs differ primarily in their accomplishment of mixing.
Steam-assisted flares are single burner tips, elevated above ground level for safety reasons, that burn the vented gas in essentially a diffusion flame. They reportedly account for the majority of the flares installed and are the predominant flare type found in refineries and chemical plants. To ensure an adequate air supply and good mixing, this type of flare system injects steam into the combustion zone to promote turbulence for mixing and to induce air into the flame.
Some flares use forced air to provide the combustion air and the mixing required for smokeless operation. These flares are built with a spider-shaped burner (with many small gas orifices) located inside but near the top of a steel cylinder two feet or more in diameter. Combustion air is provided by a fan in the bottom of the cylinder. The amount of combustion air can be varied by varying the fan speed. The principal advantage of the air-assisted flares is that they can be used where steam is not available. Although air assist is not usually used on large flares (because it is generally not economical when the gas volume is large. the number of large airassisted .flares being built is increasing.
The non-assisted flare is just a flare tip without any auxiliary provision for enhancing the mixing of air into its flame. Its use is limited essentially to gas streams that have a low heat content and a low carbon/hydrogen ratio that burn readily without producing smoke .These streams require less air for complete combustion, have lower combustion temperatures that minimize cracking reactions, and are more resistant to cracking.
Pressure-assisted flares use the vent stream pressure to promote mixing at the burner tip. Several vendors now market proprietary, high pressure drop burner tip designs. If sufficient vent stream pressure is available, these flares can be applied to streams previously requiring steam or air assist for smokeless operation. Pressure-assisted flares generally (but not necessarily) have the burner arrangement at ground level, and consequently, must be located in a remote area of the plant where there is plenty of space available. They have multiple burner heads that are staged to operate based on the quantity of gas being released. The size, design, number, and group arrangement of the burner heads depend on the vent gas characteristics.
Enclosed Ground Flares
An enclosed flare’s burner heads are inside a shell that is internally insulated. This shell reduces noise, luminosity, and heat radiation and provides wind protection. A high nozzle pressure drop is usually adequate to provide the mixing necessary for smokeless operation and air or steam assist is not required. In this context, enclosed flares can be considered a special class of pressure-assisted or non-assisted flares. The height must be adequate for creating enough draft to supply sufficient air for smokeless combustion and for dispersion of the thermal plume. These flares are always at ground level.
Enclosed flares generally have less capacity than open flares and are used to combust continuous, constant flow vent streams, although reliable and efficient operation can be attained over a wide range of design capacity. Stable combustion can be obtained with lower Btu content vent gases than is possible with open flare designs (50 to 60 Btu/scf has been reported), probably due to their isolation from wind effects. Enclosed flares are typically found at landfills.
Flares can be used to control almost any VOC stream, and can handle fluctuations in VOC concentration, flow rate, heating value, and inerts content. Flaring is appropriate for continuous, batch, and variable flow vent stream applications. The majority of chemical plants and refineries have existing flare systems designed to relieve emergency process upsets that require release of large volumes of gas. These large diameter flares designed to handle emergency releases, can also be used to control vent streams from various process operations. Consideration of vent stream flow rate and available pressure must be given for retrofit applications. Normally, emergency relief flare systems are operated at a small percentage of capacity and at negligible pressure. To consider the effect of controlling an additional vent stream, the maximum gas velocity, system pressure, and ground level heat radiation during an emergency release must be evaluated. Further, if the vent stream pressure is not sufficient to overcome the flare system pressure, then the economics of a gas mover system must be evaluated, If adding the vent stream causes the maximum velocity limits or ground level heat radiation limits to be exceeded, then a retrofit application is not viable.
Many flare systems are currently operated in conjunction with base load gas recovery systems. These systems recover and compress the waste VOC for use as a feedstock in other processes or as fuel. When baseload gas recovery systems are applied, the flare is used in a backup capacity and for emergency releases. Depending on the quantity of usable VOC that can be recovered, there can be a considerable economic advantage over operation of a flare alone.
Streams containing high concentrations of halogenated or sulfur containing compounds are not usually flared due to corrosion of the flare tip or formation of secondary pollutants (such as SO ). If these vent types are to be controlled by combustion, thermal incineration, followed by 2 scrubbing to remove the acid gases, is the preferred method.
Factors Affecting Efficiency
The major factors affecting flare combustion efficiency are vent gas flammability, auto-ignition temperature, heating value (Btu/scf), density, and flame zone mixing.
The flammability limits of the flared gases influence ignition stability and flame extinction. The flammability limits are defined as the stoichiometric composition limits (maximum and minimum) of an oxygen-fuel mixture that will burn indefinitely at given conditions of temperature and pressure without further ignition. In other words, gases must be within their flammability limits to burn. When flammability limits are narrow, the interior of the flame may have insufficient air for the mixture to burn. Fuels, such as hydrogen, with wide limits of flammability are therefore easier to combust.
For most vent streams, the heating value also affects flame stability, emissions, and flame structure. A lower heating value produces a cooler flame that does not favor combustion kinetics and is also more easily extinguished. The lower flame temperature also reduces buoyant forces, which reduces mixing.
The density of the vent stream also affects the structure and stability of the flame through the effect on buoyancy and mixing. By design, the velocity in many flares is very low; therefore, most of the flame structure is developed through buoyant forces as a result of combustion.
Lighter gases therefore tend to burn better. In addition to burner tip design, the density also directly affects the minimum purge gas required to prevent flashback, with lighter gases requiring more purge.
Poor mixing at the flare tip is the primary cause of flare smoking when burning a given material. Streams with high carbon-to-hydrogen mole ratio (greater than 0.35) have a greater tendency to smoke and require better mixing for smokeless flaring. For this reason one generic steam-to-vent gas ratio is not necessarily appropriate for all vent streams. The required steam rate is dependent on the carbon to hydrogen ratio of the gas being flared. A high ratio requires more steam to prevent a smoking flare.
Gas Transport Piping
Process vent streams are sent from the facility release point to the flare location through the gas collection header. The piping (generally schedule 40 carbon steel) is designed to minimize pressure drop. Ducting is not used as it is more prone to air leaks. Valving should be kept to an absolute minimum and should be “car-sealed” (sealed) open. Pipe layout is designed to avoid any potential dead legs and liquid traps. The piping is equipped for purging so that explosive mixtures do not occur in the flare system either on start-up or during operation.
Liquids that may be in the vent stream gas or that may condense out in the collection header and transfer lines are removed by a knock-out drum. The knock-out or disentrainment drum is typically either a horizontal or vertical vessel located at or close to the base of the flare, or a vertical vessel located inside the base of the flare stack. Liquid in the vent stream can extinguish the flame or cause irregular combustion and smoking. In addition, flaring liquids can generate a spray of burning chemicals that could reach ground level and create a safety hazard. For a flare system designed to handle emergency process upsets this drum must be sized for worst-case conditions (e.g., loss of cooling water or total unit depressuring) and is usually quite large. For a flare system devoted only to vent stream VOC control, the sizing of the drum is based primarily on vent gas flow rate with consideration given to liquid entrainment.
Process vent streams are usually passed through a liquid seal before going to the flare stack. The liquid seal can be downstream of the knockout drum or incorporated into the same vessel. This prevents possible flame flashbacks, caused when air is inadvertently introduced into the flare system and the flame front pulls down into the stack. The liquid seal also serves to maintain a positive pressure on the upstream system and acts as a mechanical damper on any explosive shock wave in the flare stack.(51 Other devices, such as flame arresters and check valves, may sometimes replace a liquid seal or be used in conjunction with it. Purge gas also helps to prevent flashback in the flare stack caused by low vent gas flow.
For safety reasons a stack is used to elevate the flare. The flare must he located so that it does not present a hazard to surrounding personnel and facilities. Elevated flares can be self supported (free-standing), guyed, or structurally supported by a derrick.
Self-supporting flares are generally used for lower flare tower heights (30-100 feet) but can be designed for up to 250 feet. Guy towers are designed for over 300 feet, while derrick towers are designed for above 200 feet Free-standing flares provide ideal structural support. However, for very high units the costs increase rapidly. In addition, the foundation required and nature of the soil must be considered.
Derrick-supported flares can be built as high as required since the system load is spread over the derrick structure. This design provides for differential expansion between the stack, piping, and derrick. Derrick-supported flares are the most expensive design for a given flare height.
The guy-supported flare is the simplest of all the support methods. However, a considerable amount of land is required since the guy wires are widely spread apart. A rule of thumb for space required to erect a guy-supported flare is a circle on the ground with a radius equal to the height of the flare stack.
The burner tip, or flare tip, is designed to give environmentally acceptable combustion of the vent gas over the flare system’s capacity range. The burner tips are normally proprietary in design. Consideration is given to flame stability, ignition reliability, and noise suppression. The maximum and minimum capacity of a flare to burn a flared gas with a stable flame (not necessarily smokeless) is a function of tip design. Flame stability can be enhanced by flame holder retention devices incorporated in the flare tip inner circumference. Burner tips with modern flame holder designs can have a stable flame over a flare gas exit velocity range of 1 to 600 ft/sec. The actual maximum capacity of a flare tip is usually limited by the vent stream pressure available to overcome the system pressure drop. Elevated flares diameters are normally sized to provide vapor velocities at maximum throughput of about 50 percent of the sonic velocity of the gas subject to the constraints of CFR.
EPA regulations require the presence of a continuous flame. Reliable ignition is obtained by continuous pilot burners designed for stability and positioned around the outer perimeter of the flare tip. The pilot burners are ignited by an ignition source system, which can be designed for either manual or automatic actuation. Automatic systems are generally activated by a flame detection device using either a thermocouple, an infra-red sensor or, more rarely, (for ground flare applications) an ultra-violet sensor.