Coke drums are thin-walled pressure vessels that experience low cycle fatigue due to thermal loadings. The delayed coking process is comprised by three major stages: heating, coking and cooling, which repeat at intervals between 20 and 48 hours. The cyclic changes of temperature increase the growth of bulges and cracks which with the passing of time, propagate and eventually cause failures due to the loss of containment. A better understanding of the phenomena of the thermal gradients and their influence on the generated stresses would reduce the effects of the damage mechanisms afflicting coke drums, for example; a continuous monitoring system could be implemented in order to control the cooling ramp to obtain a more homogeneous quenching around the cylinder of the coke drum and consequently increase its lifetime. It is been widely accepted that there is a relationship between high cooling rates in isolated zones and high axial stresses. However, this relationship has not been fully validated, since there are also been reported events of low cooling rates and high stresses. This study shows a predictable behavior (trend) that relates the spatial thermal gradients and the axial and circumferential stresses generated.

A coke drum in an upgrader facility was instrumented with two arrays or grids, each of them having 24 thermocouples and 2 strain gauges in zones with distinct bulges. One arrangement was located at an inward bulge while the other was located at an outward bulge. Computational models were carried out to reproduce the behavior of the instrumented zones with their actual deformations obtained from laser scanning. Finite element models were developed using a sequentially coupled thermo-mechanical analysis to determine the transient temperature and stress distributions. The effect of the circumferential thermal gradients on the stress levels in the instrumented cylindrical sections were analyzed, considering two cases; the first of them a perfect cylinder (without deformation) and the second one considering the presence of bulges in the area of interest.

The results indicate that there is a relationship between the circumferential thermal gradients [°C/m] or [°F/ft] and the axial stress levels, i.e., cold zones generate axial tensile stresses, and hot zones produce compressive axial stresses. This relationship is affected — exacerbated or counteracted — by the presence of the bulges. Additionally, the results obtained in this paper confirm those of previous investigations showing that outward bulges subject to pressure and thermal loading generate high stresses on its internal surface and low stresses on its external face whereas inward bulges produce the opposite effect.

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