In this episode, we’re learning about the Firebrand Award-winning chemical process developed by Streamline Innovations that removes the highly-toxic hydrogen sulfide from natural gas before it gets to the pipelines. Hear about how Streamline discovered Ignition, how to pick the right hardware to get the most out of your edge computing systems, how they developed the “HMI stick,” and of course — we’ve gotta talk about French Bulldogs.
"In order for us to make this project and this company commercial, we needed to be able to automate everything, make it autonomous, make it remotely accessible, and not worry about whether or not we were messing with our chemistry or being inefficient in our reaction, because that’s money, and that’s our survival.”
Dr. Photos has worked in the upstream oil & gas industry for over 15 years, both onshore and offshore, worldwide. Dr. Photos began his career as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University, followed by 8 years at Schlumberger, initially as a field engineer, then in product development, and finally in operations management. He has also been involved in the startup of a number of companies in the oil & gas space, including upstream technology, training & development, and machine learning/AI. He holds over 12 patents and is the author of over 10 peer-reviewed papers. He has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University in Chemical Engineering and a Master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.
Lauren: Hello and welcome to Inductive Conversations. I'm Lauren Walters, and today we're at ICC 2019 sitting down to talk with Peter Photos from Streamline Innovations. Peter, thanks for joining us today.
Peter: Thanks for having me.
Lauren: How has the conference been for you so far?
Peter: I've been so impressed with the quality of the talks and the quality of the people that have shown up. This has been a really incredibly great conference, a lot of fun. Ignition really seems to care and really done a great job in making everyone really feel at home with this conference.
Lauren: Well, that's always nice to hear. I hear your presentation was a big hit as well, and I'm curious if you could tell us first a little bit about your role at Streamline and then we'll move into some other topics like how you discovered Ignition and also the project that won a Firebrand Award this year.
Peter: So, Streamline is a gas processing company, we actually build our own units, we design, build, and operate these units. And typically what we do is we remove hydrogen sulfide. Let me give a quick background to what hydrogen sulfide is. It's a toxic gas that appears in almost every well in Texas and much of North America. Obviously when you open up your stovetops, you cook, you do not want this toxic gas coming in, and so it needs to be removed before it actually gets sold to the pipeline to make it downstream.
We have developed a chemical where literally, you just take the gas and bubble it through that liquid, and that strips out the H2S. The challenge we have at Streamline is trying to bring this chemical reaction to a pre-packaged autonomous unit that you can drop into anywhere in south or west Texas or anywhere in the world and be able to operate that unit. This process wasn't commercialized in the past, because it needed someone to sit there and make sure these chemical reactions went to just the right spot and then stop the reaction or was able to tweak things in real time. But in order for us to make this project and this company in fact commercial, we needed to be able to automate everything and make it autonomous, and make it remotely accessible and not be able to worry about whether or not we're messing up our chemistry or we're being inefficient in our reaction, because that's money and that's our survival.
It is a chemical process, and so it needs to be very tightly controlled. If you overcook the chemistry, you lose money, and if you don't cook the chemistry enough, you release H2S. So it's really about exquisitely tight chemical control over a process and we need to do that in little tiny boxes or, I say “little,” the size of a parking spot. We need to put them into remote locations, and we need to do it relatively cheaply. So we developed this product, and we were not able to really get this started until Ignition stepped in and helped us do it.
Lauren: And what's your role within Streamline Innovation?
Peter: I am the Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President of Engineering, so I'm in charge of both the R&D as well as manufacturing and building these things.
Lauren: That's really interesting. How do you balance both the science and kind of this R&D side of things?
Peter: It's tough. Some days, I'm the R&D scientist, and I'm the geek in the lab. And some days I am the engineer out in the field with a hard hat, directing people and walking around with the cranes and the people and the welders and all that. And you just gotta do them both.
Lauren: Okay, very cool. And I know that you have been using Ignition for a little bit for this process, but how did you first come across Ignition?
Peter: We actually tried to build our own version of it, so we started with our own home-brewed OPC server that communicated back to a cloud server, and it worked absolutely miserably badly. So we needed to come up ... We looked around, it had no authentication, it had no security, it didn't work. And we kind of looked around and we said, there's this product called Ignition, it's really easy to use, it's great. And not only that, it's a free trial. So let's do it. And I love the two-hour free trial because we could just test something out and we can see if it worked. And right off the bat, we immediately got bidirectional control, we immediately got to see what was going on in the field. And I will never forget the time, the first time we had bidirectional control. I was sitting ... We were in Liberty, Texas, Hailey and I, my process engineer, was sitting in my truck, and we got the notification that the site went down. Uh-oh, we're a four-hour drive from there. We can't get there to turn it back on. What are we going to do? And we said, "You know what? We have Ignition running. It's a test trial, it's a trial issue. Let's try to make it work. Turn the trial on, hit the button, and let's try it."
So we brought his laptop in my truck, he opened it up, he clicked on and turned it on, and it worked. And we're like, "We restarted this unit four hours away, 200 miles away, we were able to restart that, that was amazing." And in fact, we thought it was so special, we didn't tell anybody we did that because we didn't want the operators to know that they didn't have to go to the field to restart it.
Lauren: That's kind of amazing.
Peter: Yes. So, today, these guys in the field, the operators in the field, stay in bed and they get the alert that the unit has gone down, they roll over in bed, with their phone, they restart it right on their phone, and they go back to sleep. Because if there's something wrong, the notification system will alert them, and they can remotely restart, if the computer wasn't able to restart it on its own by itself. So Ignition was able to save us hundreds of man-hours in terms of labor, traveling to site, trips at 2:00 in the morning, almost all of that has been eliminated because of Ignition.
Lauren: That's really neat to hear. Now, you guys did win a Firebrand Award.
Peter Photos: Yes, we did.
Lauren: And you also presented today at ICC. Your presentation was called “Edge of Glory,” a reference to a Lady Gaga song.
Peter: Of course.
Lauren: I am guessing that brings Ignition Edge into the picture. Can you tell us a little bit about what that presentation was about?
Peter: Sure, so there are a lot of different ways to bring edge devices to your processes. And what I talked about was how you bring edge devices to processes. So in the case of our units, we have small units, which cost, yes, in the oil and gas industry, this may sound small, a million dollars. That means we only have a small budget, $10,000, for controls and automation. By the time you spend the money on the instruments, you don't have a lot of money for edge computing, you don't have a lot of money for fancy programming. And as you get to bigger units, you have a little bit more money, and as you get to very large units, you have a little bit more money, but there's still always: How much money do you spend and how do you pick the right hardware to help you bring edge computing and get the most out of your edge computing systems? So we looked at a couple of our different projects, our big projects, which we have a nice, juicy budget, we can buy an expensive piece of hardware to do the computing, and we could do some more calculations, but in our smaller units, we don't have as much money. So we need to be very selective about the hardware we buy. But also, what calculations we do. Because I may need to do some calculations locally because I don't need them to be done quickly, but some of the more sophisticated ones like machine learning or tuning of P&IDs, I don't need to do them on the edge, I can send them out to the cloud.
So if I take the critical calculations that need to be done and put them on the edge, and I run them in Ignition Edge, I am utilizing that hardware to its maximum capabilities. As I move to the cloud, I have more computing space, I don't need to be so time-critical about my calculations, I could do more sophisticated things and we could develop that, and then even the next layer up, would be the supercomputer or the super brain in the cloud, that I could send that data all the way up to the top, but I could do that at my leisure, because those calculations take weeks and months to do. And so I don't need to worry about doing that right away. And the transfer flow of information is a little bit slower. So I have in the field, critical calculations that are done on the edge device, I have in the cloud, I have this MISO section where I'm gathering all the data and calculations that are done on a day-to-day basis, and then a giant brain in the sky where I'm doing calculations over weeks and months.
Lauren: Sounds like that can be applied across a lot of industries, not just in the space that you guys are in.
Peter: Exactly, so we actually envision this, and the way we presented this, is this is a recipe on how to put these things together. So if you have a system that is a small system and you only have a few thousand dollars to spend on your automation budget, well, you go down this road with an edge computer that's appropriately sized, and you do the right IOs and you put everything together correctly, then you can start to make things that you never thought capable to make smart, smart.
How do we do that? With Ignition. Ignition gives you the tools, and it'll transfer the information easily. Companies like Moxa and Stratus have these boxes that are really great, that allow you to pull in data through Ignition and do some side work in Python, and then cloud services that are out there, AWS or DigitalOcean, that you can send the data to, and then do those calculations up in the cloud. That methodology is industry-agnostic. You could do this with any piece of equipment, and as long as you know your budget and how much you can spend, you may have the budget to spend a $10,000, say, Stratus computer, which is a great machine, but that's a big chunk of your budget. But if you have, if you can't afford that, you can go to a $2,000 Moxa machine or a groov EPIC machine, which is about that same price, and you can get some great quality intelligence to your system, whether you're doing oil and gas or you're doing milk production or you're doing agriculture or you're doing manufacturing, any of these industries, you could still use the same methodology.
Lauren: So what other cool projects are you working on at Streamline Innovations?
Peter: So one of the cool technologies that we have developed along the way is something, what I call an “HMI on a stick.” What we've essentially done is we took an Amazon Fire stick or the non-branded version of that, we took the software out of it, and we put on a Java machine. So when it boots up, you plug this into any TV, into the HMI port, it automatically connects to the local WiFi network or you specify the WiFi network, and it brings up our HMI. So that means we have been able to turn any TV into an Ignition player, which is really cool. So when I'm traveling, my hotel room, I plug this into my hotel room, and I could see the latest and greatest of our facilities in real time on the screen. Or we give it to a client, and they can access the data relevant for their project without having to worry about security or anything because there's nothing to type in, there's no account, it is very secure. And our clients can really appreciate it 'cause they could plug it into any TV they want.
Lauren: Now, Peter, before we let you go, we have to talk Frenchies.
Peter: Yes, I actually have 15 French bulldogs at home.
Lauren: And a team of engineers who help feed them?
Peter: No, my partner and I, we breed and show French Bulldogs, we show them in the AKC (American Kennel Club). And so last week, my dog Princeton actually became the winningest French bulldog in the history of the AKC, breaking a 50-year-old record, winning his 56th Best in Show. So we're very proud of him, and he's done a great job, and he will be coming home soon and retiring. And then the next one comes out, but we show our own dogs, and we have dogs around the country being shown at any weekend. And so if you ever wanna talk dogs, I'm happy to come and give you a rundown of all my babies at home.
Lauren: Yeah, that'll be the next panel we have at ICC, I think. Well, that's very exciting, almost as exciting as the Firebrand win, we'd like to think.
Lauren: Maybe more. We won't take it personally. Well, thank you again so much for taking the time to sit down with us. Any closing thoughts?
Peter: I just wanted to say that I think Ignition is such a great product, and I'm so proud of all the work that they've done here, and with the great presentations and the great setup, and the great show they've put on. I've really felt at home and I'm really happy to be part of the Ignition conference and the Ignition community.
Lauren: Well, Peter, we're so glad you're a part of it as well. Thank you so much.
Peter: Thank you.