Ensuring a Leak-Free Future: The Role of Mechanical Seals in Process Safety and Sustainability

July 9, 2024

7 Minute Read

In today’s process industries, leak prevention is critical — and it’s not just about reducing operating costs. Some uncontrolled releases can compromise the safety of people and the environment, making leak prevention fundamental to both process safety and sustainability initiatives. A structured approach is key.

According to the Center for Chemical Process Safety, process safety is “a disciplined framework for managing the integrity of hazardous operating systems and processes by applying good design principles and engineering and operating practices. It deals with the prevention and control of incidents that have the potential to release hazardous materials or energy.” One proven way to prevent leaks is through mechanical sealing technologies.

The primary function of sealing solutions is to prevent leaks in rotating equipment such as pumps, mixers, agitators and compressors. However, doing so can also have a positive ripple effect on sustainability. By preventing leaks, mechanical seals can protect the environment, reduce waste, enhance efficiency and help companies deliver upon their sustainability commitments.

Before exploring mechanical seals and their subsequent safety and sustainability benefits, let’s review what’s at stake.

Leaks, Process Safety and the Environment

Safety is important in any industrial environment. However, when operations involve hazardous process fluids, safety becomes an even more critical undertaking. Each industry has its own concerns. For petroleum refineries, hydrofluoric acid represents a key safety risk. At pulp and paper mills, chlorine can pose a significant hazard if not handled properly. Across fertilizer production facilities, ammonia is a core focus of safety protocols.

Sometimes called occupational safety, plant safety focuses on the health and welfare of humans. Workers exposed to spills of industrial materials are subject to risks such as irritation of skin and/or lungs, respiratory sensitization and carcinogenicity. If a spill of a harmful or toxic fluid occurs, an employer must react effectively to protect the employees; this is a fundamental component of plant safety.

Beyond plant safety, operators must also consider process safety. Part of its framework focuses on preventing and managing events such as industrial leaks, which affect the outside environment and general public. While leaks can pose a range of process safety concerns, their environmental impact has taken on even greater importance amid the energy transition. Three core risk areas include ecological disasters, water conservation and wastage.

  1. Hazardous Leaks Can Lead to Environmental Disasters

    Large-scale leaks of hazardous or toxic materials can lead to consequences that extend well beyond the immediate impact of the worksite. When it comes to process safety and environmental disasters, we may often think of the petroleum and chemical sectors. It’s easy to do so, with examples like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bhopal gas tragedy in India. However, nearly all industries have potential risk.

    The occurrence of chemical releases is a concerning matter, yet it persists. In the U.S., more than 800 hazardous chemical incidents occurred between 2021 and 2024. Results were often serious, including fires, explosions, hospitalizations and loss of life. Without the necessary process safety technologies in place, leaks could escalate into environmental disasters — wreaking havoc on habitats and biodiversity.

  2. Water Leaks Are Not Benign

    Water is vital for supporting development, energy, food, ecosystems and survival. But despite an apparent abundance, water resources are becoming scarcer. According to global estimates, 30% of treated water put into pipes is lost to leaks, many of which could be prevented.

    Water leaks may seem less concerning compared to hazardous material leaks, but they too carry safety implications. Besides causing physical injuries due to slips and falls, water can also lead to structural damage and corrosion over time, impacting occupational and process safety.

    From an environmental perspective, the water lost to leaks increases demand for freshwater resources, further straining the planet’s limited water supplies. For this reason, opportunities to retain industrial processing water are becoming a priority among sustainability-focused organizations.

  3. Leakage Incidents Inhibit Uptime and Energy Efficiency

    Leak-related incidents can lead to downtime that affects productivity, operational efficiency and a processing plant’s bottom line. According to research by Siemens, downtime can cost as much as $128M a year for a heavy industry plant and could reach $149M per year in the oil and gas sector. Finding ways to stop leaks is a practical strategy for limiting production losses.

    Financially, it’s worth noting that process leaks drive up costs as machinery works harder to compensate for the lost fluid. This additional work not only adds to operational expenses but also contributes to energy waste, which can aggravate environmental concerns and undermine sustainability efforts.

How Mechanical Seals Help Process Integrity

Mechanical seals are essential for preventing fluids from escaping around rotating equipment shafts. At its most basic, a mechanical seal has two faces: a stationary face and another that rotates with the equipment shaft. A sealing fluid between the two faces prevents process fluid leakage during a machine’s rotating operation.

Many industries employ mechanical seals for equipment, such as:

  • Pumps
  • Mixers
  • Agitators
  • Compressors

Sealing quality and effectiveness depends on the seal manufacturer and how well their product is suited to the application. It is worthwhile to talk with an expert.

John Crane’s mechanical seals are the culmination of a century of engineering expertise. Our vast scope of sealing technologies and applied industry experience are available to support your mission-critical objectives, including sustainability initiatives related to an operation’s environmental impact.

Preventing Leaks

Sealing rotating equipment such as pumps and compressors might seem like a basic, straightforward measure. However, doing so is no simple feat — and seal failure and leakage are still all-to-frequent causes of pump downtime. The efficacy of a technology like mechanical seals takes decades to perfect; precision-engineered seals are essential for a leak-free future.

Preventing leaks is more challenging in harsh operation conditions. Regulations, including API 682, provide guidance for seal selection, design and materials. When suited to purpose, mechanical seals uphold their effectiveness and improve process safety, particularly in industries that use chemicals such as chlorine or ammonia.

By preventing leaks in the first place, mechanical seals minimize environmental impact and contribute to sustainability efforts. Environmentalism can extend a step further by using technology that employs an ecologically friendly barrier fluid between the two seal faces. In this situation, the seals prevent hazardous process fluids from releasing into the environment. If a leak does occur, it is the less-harmful barrier fluid rather than the process fluid that escapes.

Reducing Process Water Consumption

Mechanical seals decrease the risk of water leaks and spills that lead to workplace safety incidents. Preventing these less-hazardous leaks also reduces the overall amount of water used for an industrial process, which aligns well with water conservation and other sustainability goals. New sealing technologies, including numerous at John Crane, are tackling the need for resource conservation across operations involving rotating equipment.

John Crane’s non-contacting Upstream Pumping (USP) Seal Face Technology reduces water consumption by 1 million gallons per pump per year compared to a traditional dual unpressurized seal. With a dynamic fluid barrier paired with a spiral groove seal design, the USP seal face technology pumps lubricating barrier liquid “upstream” to minimize process contamination, prevent contact between seal faces, extend seal life, lower operating costs and increase reliability.

Enhancing Reliability, Enhancing Safety

Equipment that doesn’t break down is less likely to trigger dangerous workplace or process situations. A well-suited, quality mechanical seal offers superior reliability for the uptime of pumps and other rotating machinery — meaning fewer equipment teardowns and fewer associated safety hazards, such as exposure to toxic oils and lubricants.

Investing in a reliable mechanical seal will also contribute to sustainability through improved efficiency and resource usage, as minimal resources will be required for process support, including the raw materials used to create oils, lubricants and replaceable components.

However, it takes engineering knowledge to maintain seal reliability for applications with demanding conditions, such as process fluids with abrasive particles, low lubricity or intermittent dry running. John Crane’s Diamond® Seal Face Technology performs reliably when a rugged solution is required. This innovative technology has a specialized low-friction, high-durability face coating to increase seal longevity and support reliable equipment operation even in harsh conditions.

John Crane Is Your Partner for Mechanical Seals

John Crane is a leading provider of mechanical seal technology. Our innovative designs optimize reliability, enhance performance and effectively prevent leaks in even the harshest operating environments. Behind these innovations is a strong commitment to process safety and sustainability — two elements that, along with reliability, have been tied to John Crane’s legacy for more than 100 years.

Enabling Circularity

Circularity refers to the concept of maintaining a product’s value for as long as possible through reducing waste and reusing resources. Designing our seals for circularity extends the lifetime of equipment and components to minimize the need for new products.

John Crane applies the idea of circularity to our mechanical seals, with a focus on effective repair and material reuse, including refurbishment solutions. Our circularity program helps our customers shrink their environmental impact without sacrificing the reliability that underpins our reputation.

Ensuring Rapid Response

Our mechanical seals are engineered for unmatched reliability. However, if a mechanical seal issue does arise, John Crane’s unmatched service delivery capability ensures a timely response that minimizes safety and environmental risks.

Our service centers are strategically situated around the globe, so no matter where our clients are, they can rely on John Crane’s dedicated team of experts for support. We provide 24-hour emergency assistance paired with state-of-the-art equipment. It’s all part of our commitment to service excellence.

A Leak-Free Future Is Within Reach

Process safety, mechanical seals and sustainability are inherently linked — all three deal with avoiding unplanned releases, saving resources and strengthening operational efficiency. At John Crane, we leverage proven expertise in mechanical sealing technology and a longstanding commitment to sustainability to help customers achieve their operational and environmental goals.

Contact John Crane’s experts to explore how our mechanical sealing solutions can power your sustainability and reliability.

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