New ideas hatch in process development

Don’t expect pilot plants to disappear as better tools and techniques enhance efforts.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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Compared with the rapid pace of product introductions elsewhere, the chemical industry can at times appear to lack innovation. As a mature and necessarily conservative industry, it certainly cannot be expected to match the pace of change in, say, consumer electronics and mobile telephony. But appearances can be deceptive. All across all the chemical industry, from the realm of high volume, low margin bulk petrochemicals to high-added-value fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals, new products, and the processes to make them, are constantly under development, albeit more slowly and more methodically than in some other industries, where perhaps fashion is a more important driver than function.

Bipin Vora, senior corporate fellow for process technology development at UOP, Des Plaines, Ill., speaking at July’s World Congress of Chemical Engineering (WCCE) in Glasgow, Scotland, put it this way: “Successful technology development, from concept to commercialization, requires a structured process. It may take anywhere from five to 10 years, requiring substantial expenditures in terms of research, pilot plant construction, development, scale-up, engineering design, and economic analyses.”

Benchmarking
Central to process development in most cases is the pilot plant, although in reality it is but one link in a chain that starts on the laboratory bench and ends at the plant with a fully commercialized unit. At the WCCE, results of an American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) pilot-plant benchmarking study were presented for the first time to an open audience. Thirty companies from across the commodity chemical, specialty chemical, pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries in North America took part in the exercise, a three-year project completed by the association’s process development division toward the end of last year.

The reasons why companies decide to pilot new and improved processes vary across the industry sectors, noted David Edwards of Zeton, Burlington, Ont.,  chairman of the division’s pilot plant group. Overall, they pilot either to demonstrate the viability of new processes, to generate design data or to produce market development samples of product. Different sectors have different priorities, of course. Sample production scores high among the pharmaceutical companies, for example. It is far less important to the oil and gas sector, which relies on piloting primarily to prove the viability of a new process and generate reliable design data.

Likewise, sectors showed distinct differences in how they decide which potential processes should progress through to the pilot stage. Approaches include: opting to pilot all processes, using a formalized risk-assessment process, making the choice based on an informal team or individual judgment, conducting a systematic review process, or relying on “stage gates” in which specific stages of the development process have to be completed before moving on to the next step.

The only sector that prefers to use piloting for all process development is pharmaceuticals, with 57% of respondents from that sector saying their company chose this route. The bulk commodity chemical industry, on the other hand, overwhelmingly appears to take the view that the decision to pilot should be based on a formal risk assessment of the process concerned.

Dan Pintar, operations manager at UOP’s Riverside, Ill., facility and a member of the AIChE team conducting the benchmarking survey, says the “gated” approach used by his company is a good way of involving multidisciplinary teams in the development process at an early stage. “Chemists might establish ‘proof of principle’ from their lab work,” he explains, “but to get to the next stage of development you have to pass through a stage gate, which is when you get input from the process development engineers.” And it’s the engineers, along with representatives from the commercial side of the business, who give the “thumbs up or down” to allow the project to move to the next stage.

According to Vora, at this and later stages of the process development, “the statistical design of experiments can and should play an important role, to better understand the results and minimize redundant efforts.” These experiments are likely to be on a small bench scale, often with the aim of screening various catalyst formulations or determining the range of operating parameters. Vora sounds a note of caution here, however. “Because a bench-scale ‘pilot plant’ often does not have product recovery or internal recycle streams built in,” he says, “the results need to be taken with a certain level of healthy skepticism. The results achieved under a perfectly controlled environment may not translate as well, or at all, to real-life situations.”

It’s at the next stage, the actual pilot plant, that issues such as the impact of the various recycle streams and impurity buildups can be fully assessed. “Even though the commercial design of the project may be several years away,” Vora says, “input from all the various branches of engineering design is critical at this early stage.”

High stakes
UOP focuses on developing processes to license and, so, is understandably cautious because it actually will not be running the processes. Some operating companies that do their own process development also see merit in a measured approach. With facilities in Houston, Texas, and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Shell Chemicals’ Chemical Process and Development Group has delivered many new processes and process improvements to the company’s operating sites around the world. Heading the process engineering and evaluation group in Houston is David Torres, who says: “It’s important to learn early on that an idea has merit before millions are spent building a unit.” His group does preliminary process design and economic analysis to guide research programs and to determine the economic viability of a project.

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