There are a limited number of reliable sealing solutions for cryogenic services in LNG plants, two leading polymers in use are spring-energized PTFE or UHMW seals.
Challenges of Working with LNG
Leaks involving LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) at cryogenic temperatures are dangerous to the health and safety of workers and to plant operation. Issues such as toxicity, extreme cold, asphyxiation, flammability, and explosions resulting from rapid expansion of LNG all point to the need for a reliable, leak-proof seal.
Finding an effective sealing solution for use in the cryogenic work environment of LNG plants can be extremely challenging. Keep in mind that nitrogen exists in liquid form under normal atmospheric pressure between -346°F and -320.44°F. It’s liquid to gas expansion ratio is very high at 1:694, which means as it boils (starting at its boiling point of -320.44°F) it will expand 694x its original volume. This can lead to an extremely high-pressure change if it occurs in a sealed environment, and most LNG seals must remain functional at either vacuum pressures or extremely high pressures.
Cryogenic Seals for LNG Plants
The temperatures involved with LNG happen to lie where many elastomeric and polymeric materials lose their elasticity and begin to behave as brittle materials. Some seals will also experience dimensional fluctuations related to temperature changes, further increasing the probability of failure. If temperature fluctuations are cyclical, there are going to be problems related to cyclic stress. Yet another issue related to dynamic cryogenic seals is lubrication: at such low temperatures, standard lubrication solutions simply will not work.
The Options For Sealing are Limited two either UHMW or PTFE Polymers and a Full Contact- Anti-Shrink Spring is Essential.
Both seal jacket materials can be specified PTFE, often known by its trade names Teflon or Flourolon 1000. The Ultra High Molecular Weight PE or UHMW, Fluorolon 5000 can handle the low temperatures involved in cryogenic service without becoming brittle (some grades can handle temperatures as low as -350°F) or succumb quickly to the effects of cyclical stress. In addition, both UHMW and PTFE are self-lubricating, low friction supports dry running, and is a nonstick/slip material. In addition, both products are compatible with a wide range of chemicals, including those it would encounter in an LNG plant.
A spring-energized seal is a seal assembly that includes an energizing spring that forces the seal lip against the mating surface to achieve a highly leak-proof seal. This seal design, when combined with a PTFE lip, has been found ideal for cryogenic applications involving LNG. The spring energizer adds permanent resilience to the seal and can compensate for lip wear, eccentricity, hardware misalignment, and (perhaps most importantly when working with LNG) extreme pressures and dimensional changes.
The recommended geometry for the spring energizer is a simple helical spring when cryogenic temperatures and either static, reciprocating, or rotary motion is involved. However, oscillatory or static motion may require the use of a solid spring. Recommended spring materials include 17-7 precipitation hardening stainless steel, 301/304 stainless steel, or, in some applications, Hastelloy, 316 stainless steel, Inconel, or Elgiloy.
The design of cryogenic seals for use in LNG plants can be challenging and must meet extremely high standards for reliability and safety, but PTFE spring-energized seals are an excellent starting point.