Perspectives from our Founder

Article 3: Enhancing sustainability through process simulation is in our DNA



By Marshall Rafal

Founder of OLI Systems, Inc.

Over the last five decades, OLI has established a strong track record of success in many of the areas that contribute to enhancing sustainability with the use of process simulation tools.   The ability to rigorously and accurately predict the behavior of electrolyte chemical mixtures, inevitably brought OLI to the forefront of mitigation of environmental and corrosion problems within the Chemical Process Industries (CPI).


It all began with improving air quality in the 1970s

In 1973, when OLI produced the first-ever software for prediction of electrolyte mixtures our focus was on the concern of our first client, Olin Chemical.  Olin was concerned about running its plants for production of pool chemistry in such a manner that product purity, mitigation of environmental emissions and economic optimization was at the forefront.  At that time, we, at OLI, were hardly aware of the environmental and product purity implications since our principal focus was accomplishing a marriage of software and chemical engineering thermodynamics to solve a formidable technical problem.

Through the 1970s as OLI worked with its next three clients DuPont, Sohio, and Phillips Petroleum, we saw the first applications of corrosion mitigation at DuPont.  This involved understanding the speciation in fluoride systems to determine, which ionic complexes were promoting corrosion and how to adjust pH to mitigate the effects of these species.  In the case of Sohio and Phillips, OLI was sought out to improve the performance of sour water stripper systems to remove ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from refinery streams to condition these streams for both reuse in the process as well as for discharge to the environment. 


Reflecting back, so much of the early interest in OLI was predicated on mitigating environmental and, in some cases, corrosion problems.


We stepped into nuclear and chemical waste management in the 1980s

A dramatic moment in our journey occurred in 1980 when a call from a Purchasing Agent at the Rockwell Hanford site (the Hanford site was managed, rotationally, by various companies, starting with DuPont in the 1940s) established Rockwell Hanford as an OLI customer.  Hanford was located in a quite remote area in west-central Washington State, where tanks containing nuclear waste dating from as early as the mid-1940s were approaching the end of their “shelf life.” Historically, Hanford had been an essential part of the Manhattan Project to produce the first nuclear weapon.  Hanford’s role had been to establish and run reactors for the purification of uranium and plutonium into weapons grade material … a separations challenge that called for an astonishing accomplishment in Chemical Engineering.  And, like most any chemical engineering process, the Hanford reactors produced waste streams.  Now, 35 years after the Manhattan Project had achieved its goals, there was considerable concern for the natural aquifers and the Columbia River, once these so-called “tank farms”, containing “a witches’ brew of chemicals,” including radionuclides, degraded to the point of, potentially, emitting contents.  Little did we know, at the time, that OLI would partner with Hanford for the next 40+ years, a partnership that allowed Hanford to deal with these wastes and OLI to add to its databanks a breathtaking array of chemistry including the principal radiochemistry of the content of these tanks.


During the 1970s and 1980s a series of environmental disasters led to overt public awareness of the threat posed by chemical spills, discharge, and catastrophic plant disasters as well.  Some of the most prominent were the contamination of Love Canal near Buffalo NY, the lethal discharge of deadly gases in Bhopal, India, the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Philadelphia, PA, the full-on meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Soviet Union (now Ukraine), and the enormous discharge of oil into the ocean off Alaska by the ship called the Exxon Valdez.  These disasters came to the attention of the public at large because the implications on human and animal life were profound.  Chernobyl, a nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine actually rendered a broad area of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.  Bhopal, a disaster caused by a corrosion failure in a plant processing unit, killed 15,000 people in Bhopal, India.


The stark reality is that from the dawn of the industrial revolution, emissions from chemical plants and refineries contaminated aquifers, rivers, air, oceans, etc.  Until the 1970s and 1980s the level of scrutiny was minimal and the result was that many people, especially in low-income areas were exposed to toxic wastes with profound implications. 


It was at this moment in time during the mid to late 1980s that OLI became better aware of the growing concerns among our customers in terms of the heightened public concern and scrutiny of their waste disposal.  One, mid-1980s concern was expressed by our then biggest customer, DuPont, which had been using a waste disposal technique called deepwell disposal at several of their prominent plant sites.  Deepwell disposal involved drilling a hole about one-mile deep in the ground and then disposing of wastes down into the natural environment downhole.  Ostensibly deep enough to cause little harm to human life at the surface, these wells came under EPA scrutiny in terms of the fate of the chemical wastes.  In fact, the EPA challenged DuPont as well as other companies operating deepwells to prove that these toxic wastes would not interact with the environment downhole in such a way that for 10,000 years there would be no implication on life at the surface.  OLI got involved because the downhole environment was by its nature electrolyte even in cases where the injectate was organic.  In the end, OLI was able to help DuPont prove that some of the deepwells likely had a benign chemical fate, but the public perception was a bad one, especially after Love Canal exposed something of worst-case scenario in terms of contamination of natural environments.  And, so, DuPont and others eventually phased out their deepwells.


We developed a flowsheet simulator to address environmental concerns in the 1990s

One of the most crucial pivot points in the history of OLI came in 1988, when we realized that some of the burgeoning environmental concerns of the CPI could be addressed by properly appointed technical tools and not just by a company’s PR and/or Legal Departments.  Out of this moment came the aspiration to develop an environmental flowsheet simulator, a formidable challenge for OLI inasmuch as we lacked our own flowsheet simulator.  There were two directions possible.  One was to partner with an established process simulator company such as SimSci or Aspen and the other was to build our own.  For the better part of a year OLI did joint market research with SimSci, leading both companies to conclude that the commercial opportunity was attractive and that we also had an opportunity to do some good.  In the end, though, we could not agree on the terms of partnership and so both companies decided to pursue development separately.  In the case of SimSci, they already had the flowsheet platform with Process (the forerunner of PRO/II), but their development of an environmental simulator petered out in the early 90s.  In the case of OLI, the result was the development of The Environmental Simulation Program (ESP), years later rebranded as The Electrolyte Simulation Program.  During 1990-1991 OLI funded the development of our own flowsheet simulator as well as conventional and environmental unit operations by consolidating financial and technical steering support from the ESP Consortium comprised of seven companies (DuPont, Exxon, ICI, Davy McKee, IBM, Texaco and Chemical Waste Management)


This was followed by the development of the Corrosion Simulation program to protect equipment in harsh environments

As mentioned earlier, it was in the 1970s that DuPont studied certain commercial fluoride chemistry to determine how to mitigate corrosion.  That said, OLI did not focus on corrosion as a core competence until the mid-90s.  At that time, at an OLI User Conference in 1994, one of our users at Exxon made the point that he had been using ESP and its companion Prochem to study corrosive solutions.  He further made the point that OLI could leverage its unique ability to predict the speciation of electrolyte solutions to provide tools to address corrosion problems throughout the CPI.  Out of this moment, came the idea of reprising an OLI Consortium, this time for the development of the Corrosion Simulation Program (CSP).  An eight-company consortium founded in 1995 helped oversee and fund the development.  In a curious moment in our history, we had signed contracts from most of the members before our search for a scientist who could combine the thermodynamics of electrolytes with the kinetics of corrosion into a coherent model got stalled.  Thanks to a very fortuitous phone call with Professor Richard Riman of Rutgers, OLI found its man in the person of Andre Anderko, the same person who is now OLI’s CTO.


The last two decades


We had built a very strong foundation to enable sustainable process design by the early 2000s


By the very early 2000s, OLI had, in place, the essential core tools for studying environmental emissions as well as plant safety.  The ongoing mission was to cover the all-encompassing chemistry of interest to our clients so that these tools could be used in real world chemical environments.  An excellent example of this deep dive into relevant chemistry came when a community of 12 (oil refiners and oil refinery chemical manufacturers) focused OLI on the problem of corrosion in the overheads of amine units.  The core problem was to provide databank development for 20 principal amines of interest to our consortium including the amine hydrochloride solids and ionic liquids that could form in the overheads.  Given that there was almost no data on any of the amine hydrochlorides, OLI had to commission laboratory work to obtain the data required.  Then, once the huge databank challenge was solved (OLI had to add all of the 20 amines along with relevant chemistry to its databanks), the final challenge was to accurately predict the formation of phases in the overhead.  In simple terms, if conditions could be established to avoid the formation of the amine hydrochloride solid phase, aggressive corrosion could be avoided.

During the past decade, OLI has put great focus on databank development relevant to wastewater treatment.  This has involved adding the chemistry of many principal contaminants such as arsenic, selenium, lead, etc.  Wastewater treatment is a reality throughout the CPI as well as a public concern. The addition of a first-principles membrane unit to Flowsheet ESP has been an important part of this effort.

That said, the biggest environmental challenge ever faced by OLI and some of its largest customers in the CPI, in particular oil and gas, is the global effort to limit emissions of carbon dioxide.  Global warming is generally acknowledged as a serious threat to our planet sustaining life in a comfort zone that we have previously enjoyed.  Since 2016 OLI has been involved in multiple projects, both in the US and in Europe, regarding CO2 capture and mitigation.  OLI’s unique MSE-SRK model extended to extreme downhole conditions is being utilized in current research vital to the CPI.


Our sustainability journey has been gratifying for both OLI and our customers.  We, at OLI, have been afforded an opportunity to develop and hone thermodynamic and corrosion models along with databank development as broad as most of the periodic table.


Sustainability is, indeed, at the heart of OLI’s DNA.

Looking to the Future


OLI has always taken a broad perspective in terms of sustainability in industrial, chemical process simulation.  Our definition spans air and water quality to carbon footprint, carbon capture, water conservation and reuse, recycling, waste minimization hazardous waste treatment and improving environmental safety for harsh and toxic industrial environments.


In the coming decades, we are looking forward to building on the strong sustainability foundation from our past and expanding in newer areas like energy storage, lithium battery cycling, eliminating more toxic contaminants from air and water and finding new and innovative ways to lower the carbon footprint and better ways to capture carbon and store it.


More information


You can read more about OLI’s latest capabilities in Sustainability solutions for chemical process simulation here

Please contact OLI at https:/ for more information or to schedule a meeting with an OLI expert to discuss how you can use OLI technologies to address your process modeling challenges.