With more than 35 years of experience in process and process safety engineering, Freeman Self, principal process engineer at Bechtel, has helped deliver many successful projects globally to our customers and partners. Freeman has supported projects including agricultural chemicals, mustard agent neutralization, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and various refining processes. His expertise includes fluid mechanics in gas-liquid systems, heavy-oil kinetics, and unsteady-state analysis.
Freeman joins Jennifer Whitfield to discuss:
- How his military career influenced his path into process safety
- The importance of plant design and construction to protect from chemical reactions and excess temperature or pressure
- How brainstorming with colleagues lead to an innovative solution for our customers
Interviewee: Freeman Self (FS)
Interviewer: Jennifer Whitfield (JW)
JW: Welcome to another exciting episode of our BechTech Podcast, a podcast where we highlight technical specialists at Bechtel. I'm Jennifer Whitfield, and today, I'm joined by Freeman Self, principal process engineer and Bechtel Fellow. Freeman has over 35 years of industry experience specializing in process safety and relief system design. His expertise includes fluid mechanics in gas-liquid systems, heavy oil kinetics, and unsteady state analysis. Freeman, thank you for joining me today. I'm looking forward to our discussion.
FS: Thank you, Jennifer. I am, too.
JW: Let's go ahead and get started. I am very interested in hearing more about your career as a process engineer including your background. Can you tell me more about what lead you to your current role?
FS: Since my father had a degree in chemical engineering and my mother had a degree in math, chemical engineering seemed like a logical choice. After graduate school, I completed my two-year active-duty service in the U.S. Army, and then through a good friend from school, I was convinced to return to Houston to work for an engineering company. But the petrochemical recession was looming, and I followed my boss to another engineering firm. When they closed their doors, on an invitation from a former department colleague, we both migrated to Bechtel. He became a Bechtel Fellow, and I was mentored by another close friend who, after a distinguished career, was hired by Bechtel to be the first technology officer.
JW: What attracted you to a career as a technical specialist?
FS: I had been an industrial hygienist in the U.S. Army, so process safety was a related technical specialty, and it allowed me to work in different disciplines. Importantly, process safety design was rather rudimentary, so that was a great opportunity to make it more rigorous, and that challenge interested me. Plus, I was able to leverage similar minded colleagues in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), which provided different experiences and perspectives in process safety.
JW: Now Freeman, as our listeners have heard, your specialties are in process safety and relief system design. Can you explain these specialties in more detail?
FS: My job is to ensure that the plant we are designing for our customers, whether LNG, refining, or chemicals, is protected from excess temperature, chemical reactions, or excess pressure. It is hard to go a few months without reading about an industrial accident, and these accidents hurt people. They harm the environment, they damage equipment, and they ruin companies’ reputations. Many of these accidents, or incidents as they are better termed, are often due to lack of proper protection. The expression “relief system design” is the task of designing proper protection. One common method is to provide equipment that will release fluid in the system if the system has unnecessary hot temperatures or pressures or reactive chemicals, hence the name, “relief systems.” Now, to understand, there's several analogies with the home. For example, every hot water heater has a little valve on the side of the tank near the top of the heater. This is a pressure relief valve that will open as the pressure gets too high. You may have, or your mother or father may have, a pressure cooker, and with a pressure cooker, the little gadget on the cover is the same pressure relief valve.
JW: Thanks, Freeman. I think we can all understand why what you do is so important. Can you tell me about a time within your career that you solved a complex challenge for your customers using your area of expertise?
FS: One of our customers that manufactured solid catalysts (and these are chemicals that facilitate chemical reactions) was having the solids break apart since the surface was not sufficiently durable. The customer urgently needed a new furnace to bake the surface. However, a new furnace required two years to manufacture. We were able to locate a used furnace. We completely repaired the furnace, but we still had one problem, and that is the tall chimney, which dispersed flue gas. [It] needed an adjusting mechanism, and that was almost impractical on a tall steel chimney. Over dinner with another friend, we were brainstorming any ridiculous idea, and my friend suggested making part of the stack flexible. So, we located and hired a company that made space suits for NASA. This space suit manufacturer was able to fabricate a fabric that could withstand hot temperatures. We installed part of the steel chimney using that flexible spacesuit material, and it worked perfectly for the two years until the customer’s brand new furnace was delivered.
JW: That's quite an innovative story! On the same thread, discussing specific achievements, what would you say has been one of your most notable moments while working on a project?
FS: There have been many. One of the most notable was a gas processing plant in Thailand where the team resolved a complex cost issue. The customer was concerned and did not want to build a pipeline from the local river to supply water to cool equipment since the pipeline was cost prohibitive. The team understood the customers concerns, and with further analysis and a deeper understanding of the process, we were able to demonstrate that the customer did not need as much cooling and thus did not need a new pipeline. Therefore, we were able to continue the project, had a successful startup, and a satisfied customer.
JW: What more can you ask for? Are there other ways you engage in the process engineering field aside from your day-to-day job requirements?
FS: I have been active in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) as a member of the Board of Directors, the corporate secretary, and a member of the AIChE Foundation. AIChE is helping Bechtel and our customers increase diversity and inclusion in all industries, hiring chemical engineers, particularly in the petrochemical industry. They have been a large help for our customers and Bechtel in this endeavor.
JW: Great, thank you, Freeman. That concludes our podcast. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and career highlights with us today.
FS: Jennifer, thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
JW: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our Insights blog to be alerted when future episodes of the BechTech podcast are released.