Currently, every chemical, coatings, beverage, pharmaceutical and petrochemical processing facility stores large volumes of potentially hazardous or toxic liquid in atmospheric or low pressure storage tanks. To stop the tanks from rupturing due to a build-up of gases, they’re fitted with breather valves which allows the tank to breathe by releasing the gases into the environment.
The size of the tank determines how many breather valves it has and each valve is unique to the storage tank it is fitted to. They’re often heavy and require lifting down from the tank roof using a crane in order to send them offsite to be tested, so testing the efficacy of the valve(s) is only conducted periodically. What’s more, operators are often reluctant to send these expensive devices offsite when servicing and testing is required, in case they get lost or damaged in transit.
When a breather valve isn’t working as it should, the potential negative impact on human health, on the environment and on the tank farm’s own operating efficiency is unknown. Each year, an inefficient two inch tank breather valve, the smallest sized valve available on the market, can emit gases which amass to the volume of 19 double decker busses. Whereas a fully functioning, high quality valve of the same size will only emit one double decker bus over the same period. “There are thousands of vents across the country, so you’re getting an idea of the impact and what we are trying to do to improve air quality,” says Debbie Pearce, Director at Assentech.
To address this problem, Assentech wanted to make it easier for operators to ensure their tank valves are working at optimum capacity and in accordance with industry standards, so they decided to develop a mobile testing rig that would be able to test the calibration and leak tightness onsite at the customers’ premises. Debbie explains how their innovation journey first started:
“We’re a small company and we had a vision. We’ve known that the regulations within the tank storage industry and monitoring fugitive emissions has been very unregulated. So Ewart, the MD at Assentech, came up with the idea of the technology a few years back and we’ve been evolving the technology on a year-on-year basis.”
ATI2’s Business Innovation Advisor, Mike Robertson, has been working with Assentech for a couple of years now, through ATI1 when they first engaged with the project and with ATI2. As part of the ongoing support, Mike facilitated a number of strategy sessions in collaboration with Paul Gilbert, a manufacturing specialist from SWMAS. Debbie recalls how the sessions provided valuable insights from outside the business:
“They’re really knowledgeable. Paul and Mike have been a constant voice of reasoning for us and have given us a lot of really valuable thoughts. You know, when you’re so absorbed in a product you’re almost too close… we did a day where we did some troubleshooting and pitched the different issues that we were facing, and just by using their skillset and asking the right questions it gave us a full overview of the compliance side, the manufacturing side and all the issues we would face within each area and how we would overcome them.”
As an output of the strategy sessions, Assentech were put into contact with Vital Spark, one of ATI2’s trusted consultants with specialist knowledge in design and prototyping. “They’ve been absolutely brilliant”, says Debbie. “That lead has enabled us to really gain traction on the design element and they’re really, really good people. Again, they just know the industry and just like Paul and Mike they can look through our eyes very quickly and easily, so they get it”, she adds.
Before taking their mobile test bench to market, Assentech wanted to ensure they had the right protection in place in terms of Intellectual Property (IP). As a project led by the University of Plymouth, ATI2 were able to arrange for Ewart Cox, MD at Assentech, to attend a one-to-one IP workshop with David Mosely, an Intellectual Property Specialist at the University of Plymouth.
“IP is quite complex and it’s difficult, initially, to understand. You can’t google and find out easily what would be eligible to IP within our test bench, so by talking direct [with an IP specialist] we could quickly establish our next steps” says Debbie.
Assentech now have the IP registered internationally, which means they have begun marketing and quoting for their mobile test bench. “All the leads and all the support we’ve had has been massive for us. We are feeling now that we are in a good position and a lot is down to the information we’ve had from you [ATI2 & SWMAS]” says Debbie.
As part of the innovation support offered through the project, Assentech were awarded a grant from the ATI2 Innovation Fund to help with the costs of the vital patent protection and two types of breather valves in order to conduct feasibility and testing of their new product.
“The grant allows us to invest more in our technological advances. It has cost us an awful lot of money to get to this level, meanwhile balancing all the other areas of the business, so it’s given us a little bit of cash flow there to reinvest and push ourselves along a little bit quicker”, explains Debbie.
This is the first mobile test bench of its kind and Assentech have big plans to continue to innovate. In fact, their long-term innovation strategy is now focused upon evolving the business into a technology based company, one which provides technological solutions for testing all different types of vents, and at various stages of the supply chain and stages of a breather valve’s lifespan. With the ambition to the raise industry standards, awareness of the issues surrounding storage tank emissions and improving air quality, they’re now looking forward to progressing some of their other ideas.
Image above of Ewart Cox, MD at Assentech, Debbie Pearce, Director at Assentech and Mike Robertson, ATI2 Business Innovation Advisor.