Should we change our approach to change?

Mike Spear reports that a partnership of major oil companies hopes to prove that risk has its rewards.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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The concept of process intensification (PI) has always appealed to chemical engineers. Combining two or more basic unit operations into one piece of equipment offers obvious advantages in terms of plant size, processing times and the possibility of reduced energy demands, a factor that is increasingly important these days. And yet the uptake of innovative PI technologies has remained weak. There are exceptions of course. The in-line static mixer, for example, is arguably one the simplest and most widely used devices that could fall under the definition of PI. But perhaps it is too commonplace to be thought of as a piece of innovative engineering.

More easily classified as PI techniques are units such as printed-circuit heat exchangers, spinning disc reactors and oscillatory baffled reactors. As Clive Whitbourn of the Crystal Faraday Partnership (a U.K.-government-sponsored technology transfer initiative), Rugby, England, says, “These techniques claim to help processes to become safer, cleaner, smaller and cheaper. They are all intellectually satisfying and make us wonder why we didn’t think of the idea before.”

Whitbourn sees many PI initiatives as “solutions in search of a problem.” But the problem for proponents is that mainstream alternatives to PI techniques are perceived as perfectly adequate for the jobs they do. They have been in place for years, are fully depreciated and give the performance expected of them. So why take a chance on change? Change for change’s sake may sustain the fashion and other consumer-focused industries, but can it really be recommended as a sensible strategy for the chemical industry?

Change has to have a purpose — be it to improve process performance, increase yields or ensure continuing regulatory compliance. PI technologies offer innovative ways of delivering all these goals but, to date, few operating companies have shown the willingness to take a risk on, as they see it, the relatively untried and untested.

Compare and contrast this wary approach to innovation with a project just announced by some of the leading firms in the oil industry. BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and the U.K. power company Scottish and Southern Energy are to start engineering design of the world’s first industrial-scale project to generate “carbon-free” electricity from hydrogen.

The plan is to convert up to 70-million scfd of natural gas to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen would then fuel a new 350-MW combined-cycle gas turbine power station at Peterhead in northeast Scotland while the CO² would be exported through existing pipelines to a mature North Sea oil reservoir to increase recovery from a well 240 km offshore. Around 1.3 million metric tons of CO² per year could be captured and stored, and enough “carbon-free” power generated for up to a quarter of a million households.

Although the syngas, reforming and power-generation technologies involved are all individually well proven, their proposed combination in this way is said by the project’s partners to be unique.
With a total capital investment of $600 million if taken through to completion, this project certainly is not a tentative “toe in the water” one. The partners are already committed to detailed front-end engineering design (FEED) work to confirm the economic feasibility. Once FEED is completed towards the end of next year, the final investment decision will be made. If the project gets the go-ahead, it could be up and running in 2009.

According to BP Group chief executive, Lord Browne, “This is an important and unique project configured at a scale that can offer significant progress in the provision of cleaner energy and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.” Its scale also means that the partners must be prepared to take a significant investment risk even at this early stage, whether or not FEED  supports the potential of the project.

Innovation can bring its rewards but rarely without risk. Sometime, though, that risk might just be worth taking.


MSpear@Putman.net
Dr. Spear is editor of the U.K.’s Process Engineering magazine.

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