Our People: Senior Engineer recognized for innovative in-line mixing technology

Business News

Kyle Miller with his patent awards from Marathon Petroleum.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has recently granted Marathon Petroleum Company LP (MPC) three utility patents associated with an innovative idea conceived and developed by MPC’s own Senior Engineer, Kyle Miller, that has been successfully deployed and scaled. These patents are directed to MPC’s in-line mixing technology, which has already saved MPC, Marathon Pipe Line LLC (MPL) and MPLX LP (MPLX) significant time, money and storage space, among other benefits.

In 2017, business development representatives had to decide whether to add storage tanks to the MPL facility in Patoka, Illinois, to meet growing demand for neat and blended crude oil or find an alternative solution to blend and store crude oil. Miller, a mechanical engineer who has always been curious about how things work, knew there was a better way.

“The easiest but least precise way to blend is to dump multiple products in the same tank. Companies who want to be more precise will build parallel blending skids to control the blended product when it needs to pump out,” said Miller. “My design achieves at least the precision of parallel with less cost, less energy and a smaller footprint.”

Miller spent weeks on various designs that mixed the crude in-line versus a separate mixing tank.

“Everyone that was involved pushed to innovate, because we never approached this as ‘what has been done before’, but ‘what can be done.’”

“Engineering can certainly be a creative discipline, but it’s not boundless; you will crash against physics if you don’t pay attention to details,” said Miller.

Miller submitted an invention disclosure form to MPC’s Law Organization in 2017 to begin the process of protecting his inventive concept as an alternative to the then-current tank blend practices. Miller believed his design and systems would allow neat crudes to be precisely blended directly into an outgoing pipeline and free up tankage at MPL’s Patoka facility. The project would be weighed against the cost of constructing new tankage at the tank farm. He teamed up with a business development representative to bring the idea to the field.

“We guided the project starting with a complete proof-of-concept, which relied on existing infrastructure, and series—not parallel—scope for a large-scale investment,” said Zack Thobe, Senior Business Development Representative for MPLX. “When we had data proving it would work, we moved forward with sanctioning the full-scale project implementation.”

The in-line mixing technology allows MPLX to simultaneously mix multiple crude components from separate tanks with precision. The blend is then delivered onto pipelines to refinery demand centers, eliminating the need for an additional tank to blend the products. Instead of blending at high pressures downstream of existing pumps, mixing occurs upstream of the pump; thus, the injection pump loading is only a fraction of that required for a parallel system. Control is easier because the gravity-fed stream will simply react to the injected stream. Another benefit of this technology is that the in-line boosters may be less than a quarter of the motor size that would have been required with parallel systems. This technology also uses smaller pipes and valves while using as much existing equipment as possible.

“Engineering can certainly be a creative discipline, but it’s not boundless; you will crash against physics if you don’t pay attention to details.”

“Previously, any customer who had a ratable demand of a blended crude oil was commercially committing to three tanks or scaled to meet their needs. Now, their fixed commitment is substantially less with the in-line mixing, without sacrifices on quality, ratability or flexibility,” said Thobe. “The 2-component mixing solution has been within 0.10% of target spec. This is significant considering the variability of tank blending (a customer’s alternative) moves the decimal place twice to the right. We have been executing 3-component for almost a year; that doesn’t transpire in a parallel blending system. The solution has freed up tanks for other commercial use.”

The technology allows customers to customize industry or niche 2-component or 3-component blends, with possibly more in the future.

Since 2019, MPLX has in-line mixed over a hundred million barrels using this technology.

“Everyone that was involved pushed to innovate, because we never approached this as ‘what has been done before’, but ‘what can be done,’” said Thobe. “We are having conversations that are changing the way people think about crude oil blending.”

Through collaboration between Miller and MPC’s Law Organization, MPC has successfully patented Miller’s in-line mixing technology in both the United States and Canada and has since begun its commercialization.

“This has made me even more of a tinkerer than I was before, and it’s given me a ton of confidence in my process for attacking a problem,” said Miller. “I was fortunate to be a part of the best hydraulics design group in the world with a supervisor who fostered curiosity and discussion. Alone, you may dismiss yourself too quickly. Your team will help bring your idea to life, and strong field employees will keep your idea grounded in reality.”