January 2017, Vol. 244, No. 1


Oxford Flow’s High-Performance Industrial Pressure Regulator

High-performance industrial pressure regulators are used in gas and liquid pipelines to control flows and to prevent problems such as leaks.

There are numerous companies supplying this market including America’s Fairchild Industrial Products, Italy’s Pietro Fiorentini, and Germany’s KSB Aktiengesellschaft. The UK’s Oxford Flow Company, led by CEO Simon Hombersley, estimates that the high-performance industrial pressure regulator market is worth $3 billion a year.

Regulators are designed to withstand extreme pressure and temperatures while operating seamlessly to control the rate of flow through pipelines. They are ubiquitous in the energy sector and can be found in producing fields, transmission and distribution pipelines, refineries and natural gas power plants.

Most high-performance industrial pressure regulators are still based on designs by British engineer and innovator Bryan Donkin dating back to the 1800s. Donkin’s design incorporates actuated ball valves powered by costly generators and backup generators. The trouble is that the ball valve’s components begin to fail through use because of erosion, fatigue and eventually breakage. As a result, such often-heavy devices have to be regularly replaced, leading to costly downtime. In fact, some ball valves are so heavy that they need at least two workers to remove them.

Why Innovative?

It was to overcome the longevity and weight problems of conventional designs that Professor Thomas Povey of Oxford University, supported by £320 million investment group OSI, which provides development capital for Oxford University’s Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division and its Medical Sciences Division spinoff companies, was able to conduct his research.

Povey spent five years at the world’s leading Osney Thermo-Fluids Laboratory in Oxford. The laboratory’s super-computers enabled his team to take exact measurements of heat transfer in turbine blades which required precise control of gas flow to capture the requisite data. The Oxford Flow Valve, launched in 2015, is designed to regulate the flow of gases and liquids in industrial processes without a diaphragm, which is viewed by industry experts as the main cause of valve failure.

“The Oxford Flow concept uses a direct-sensing piston actuator in order to simplify the design of the regulator and eliminate the need for a diaphragm,” said Chris Leonard, business development director at Oxford Flow. Unlike its rivals, there is just one moving part, Povey said. This means it is better able to manage corrosive substances and flows that exit from wellheads because it does not need a diaphragm to regulate pressure.

By being smaller and 80% lighter than its rivals, the Oxford Flow regulator doesn’t require heavy lifting equipment and can be handled by just one worker. Another advantage is the ability to handle over 10 times the volume with a high degree of precision and control.

The company develops value-add engineered products based on industrial applications of regulating gas or fluid flow. Oxford Flow’s stainless steel and polymer pressure regulators are available in sizes ranging from 2-12 inches. These products are designed in the UK to ISO quality standards.

How It Works

As expected, one side of the piston is exposed to downstream pipeline pressure, while at the same time the other side is balanced against a pressure cavity controlled by a pilot regulator. Such a piston actuator operates over an optimized feedhole configuration in order to provide precise stable control across the entire operating range. Throughout its operation, the piston moves inward, reducing the size of the cavity when the downstream pipeline pressure exceeds that within the pressure cavity set by the pilot regulator.

Not surprisingly, the closing movement of the piston actuator decreases the flow rate, thereby managing to create a stable downstream pressure. When demand increases, the downstream pressure falls beneath that set by the pilot, and the reverse operation occurs. The cavity contracts as the pilot exhausts it, opening the flow path, which increases flow and maintains a stable downstream pressure.

The Benefits

“From testing of the concept, it has been discovered to be more efficient, less noisy and hardwearing than rival devices,” Leonard said. In addition, being piston-led, it eliminates the need for a powered actuator dependent on grid supply or solar-powered batteries.

In essence, its design makes it self-powered, self-regulating and simpler to make. As a result, it is less expensive than many rival products on the market, yet less likely to fail than traditional designs.

Unlike many traditional valve manufacturers, Oxford Flow relies heavily on super-computers located in the Osney Thermo-Fluids Laboratory to inform the design process. Harnessing the power of a dedicated super-computer enables design teams to model regulators virtually, allowing the team to explore what is likely to happen with particular pressure and flow rates. Reassuringly, these models have reached a level of maturity in which the deviation between predicted and observed performance is minute.

Reflecting on his invention, Povey said, “I think we are largely meeting their needs by doing things differently, more precisely, much smarter and more cost-effectively. If you compare our product to, say, an actuated ball valve, we clearly have an advantage.”

Cost Challenge

The shale energy revolution in the U.S. and development of subsea reserves have created several major engineering challenges, pushing technology and processes to new heights in the last 20 years. The cost of these solutions in some cases is prohibitive, and while perhaps offering a sound investment at $80 price-to-book (p/b), the latest trend in the industry is a search for solutions that still make sense in an environment of $40/ barrel.

“In many different ways, it makes it so much easier to monitor and understand the operations of networks and to proactively, in real-time, manage them. It means businesses are much more empowered to make decisions because they can see precisely how their network is functioning at any given time to improve reliability and reduce costs,” said Povey.

Leonard predicts a widening of Oxford Flow’s product portfolio beyond regulators to embrace the associated equipment that is used alongside. Oxford Flow has delivered the first major innovation into the sector in over 200 years and revolutionized the design of pressure regulators, he said.

“We now have our sights set on bringing the same ingenuity to the other equipment associated with flow and pressure control to offer similar benefits of reduced cost, increased reliability and improved performance.”


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