Then and now: a timeline of pneumatic conveying systems

By Jack Hilbert | February 12, 2021

In a few months I’ll be celebrating my 48th anniversary working in the global bulk solids industry and more specifically, in the field of pneumatic conveying systems and equipment. Pneumatic conveying is one of several different technologies available for moving a dry bulk solid such as cement, minerals, ores, chemical powders, and tablets from one point to another. Like everything else in our lives, the current state of the pneumatic conveying industry has changed significantly over the last few decades.

I recall during my years as young engineer, fresh out of college, I’d always be on the lookout for the technology behind the practice and whenever I would ask questions about “why” we did things or “why” we didn’t–the answer was to “go ask Jim.”

Jim, an expert in the field and a mentor, would proceed to tell me that we do things this way or that way because that’s what we’ve always done and because that’s how he was taught. He would then open one of his desk drawers and pull out his numerous yellow tablets and wooden pencils and show me his notes, marked up documents, field service reports, photos, and phone call message papers with handwritten notes, which were essentially considered to be the company’s technology database.

Our company was not unique, all the competitors had their version of a Jim, and information wasn’t as readily available as it is today. To no surprise, pneumatic conveying was often referred to as a black art, but never as a science.

But over time, changes took place. More and more engineers from different disciplines were entering the field, communication channels were being implemented, and information retrieval and documentation were being established. Companies started investing in technology and new equipment, necessitated by the global demand for production plants being built at rates and capacities previously considered unachievable.

To support that industry growth, we finally started looking at pneumatic conveying as a science and applying proven methods and principles of momentum, energy transformation, thermodynamics, and the laws of compressible gas dynamics. The outcome? Those yellow tablet sheets and cryptic notes became intellectual property and computerized techniques were soon available for system design. While certainly not ignoring the lessons learned and valuable past experiences of those before us, experts began incorporating data obtained from purposely built test facilities and using improved methods of data acquisition and artificial intelligence to fine-tune those techniques.

Along the way—while equipment and pneumatic system suppliers were still protective of their abilities to design systems and rightfully viewed their technology as part of their proprietary product line—several global academic facilities were adding pneumatic conveying to their test facilities and curriculum agendas. Technical papers were being produced and presented in journals, trade conferences, and textbooks. The “smoke” of the so-called black art of pneumatic conveying systems was clearing and the “mirrors” were reflecting a truer reality.

Fast-forward to today: pneumatic conveying is more recognized as a science, more explainable in terms of formulas and equations, and better able to predict changes in existing system performance through the use of online data acquisition and real-time process changes to the equipment. Further, concerns and regulatory mandates for the handling of combustible materials are increasingly being implemented into system and equipment design to minimize the risks of property damage and more importantly, personal injury.

There was never any question that pneumatic conveying, while having many attractive features such as flexibility in routing conveying pipelines and being environmentally friendly with respect to physical dust emissions, also faced the challenge of being the most energy-intensive form of material handling.

Today, our knowledge of the physical nature of the materials we move is exponentially greater than in the past. Pneumatic conveying is still energy-intensive in a relative sense, but can be much less intensive with the more advanced technologies and application techniques available, such as using dense phase conveying when applicable and using innovative systems, helping to lower overall system energy requirements.

An example of this is PneuCalc 7.0.0, an innovative improvement to the previous software specifically targeted to provide users with a more user-friendly interface and additional information to aid them in the design optimization of pneumatic conveying systems. This software’s features and tools help users achieve the best system design, troubleshoot existing system issues, and evaluate technical proposals from third-party suppliers, achieving cost-effective, maximum efficiency.

With all of the positive changes to equipment design, newly available materials and construction options, improved understanding of the whys and why nots of doing things, and perhaps most importantly, moving forward with better database research and state-of-the-art system design software, today’s pneumatic conveying systems are truly taking on some of the world’s toughest challenges with solutions that are safe, innovative, and increasingly sustainable.