A Different Plant Appears on the Horizon

Advances in a variety of areas will transform processing.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The chemical plant of the future will differ considerably from today’s facilities.
It’ll be smaller, safer, more efficient, better controlled and use other feedstocks.

The Flexible, Fast and Future (F3) Factory initiative, which was launched on June 8 at Bayer Technology Services (BTS), Leverkusen, Germany, will offer a glimpse of what’s to come. It brings together 25 leading European chemical companies and research institutes into a project funded by the European Union (EU) and coordinated by BTS. The four-year, €30-million (about $42-million) effort aims to design and develop a modular continuous plant, to standardize processes and their interfaces, and to demonstrate the capabilities of the F3 Factory with existing products. The partners also intend to apply the efficiency and scalability of world-scale continuous plants to batch production facilities. Such moves could save the European chemical industry nearly €4 billion ($5.6 billion) and open up new markets, reckons the F3 Factory consortium.

“Today we are at the beginning of a trendsetting — and perhaps even revolutionary — cooperation within the European chemical industry, since F3 Factory combines the enormous process know-how of industry and research units in a to-date unique consortium across competitors,” notes Achim Noack, BTS managing director.

However, individual companies also are working on their own to plot a course for their future. For instance, consortium member BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, is working to develop a set of adapted plant concepts that address future needs. “If, for instance, market demand is expected to develop over a long timescale, a smaller plant with a built-in expansion option helps to avoid underutilization cost and market risk of a world-scale installation. The expansion can either be accomplished by designing multiple parallel trains or by including debottlenecking options into the design of the first plant. Another example is a plant designed to be adapted gradually to a changing product portfolio, allowing its continued use despite the limited lifecycle of the individual products,” explains Georg Grossmann, director, group engineering.

In addition, the company is tackling high energy costs associated with basic thermal separation processes such as distillation and extraction. “To assure its competitive position in a high-energy-cost environment, BASF is using advanced concepts to minimize the specific energy used for separation. Those include vapor recompression, optimized separation sequences using dividing wall columns [for details on this technology, see “Consider Dividing Wall Columns, and high performance packings, and computerized optimization methods for heat integration.”

Feedstock flexibility is a driving force in its research activities. For instance, working with Linde AG, Munich, Germany, BASF has developed a process for making propene from propane. The catalyst is achieving more than 93% selectivity in a propane dehydrogenation pilot plant at Ludwigshafen. Other examples include new synthesis routes for aromatics using an improved molybdenum-carbide catalyst system.

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