BASF also is heavily focused on biotechnologies for converting raw materials such as sugar and vegetable oil into chemical products (Figure 1). An important aspect of this is the use ionic liquids (Wood-based Chemicals Get Boost) to enable easier and cheaper processing of cellulose.

In 2009 the company is investing €300 million (about $421 million) in what it calls five “growth clusters” — energy management, raw material change, nanotechnology, plant biotechnology and white (industrial) biotechnology.

Energy-Efficient Distillation
The F3 Factory consortium and BASF certainly aren’t blazing a new trail in their efforts to reduce high energy costs associated with separation processes.

“The U.S. government has been trying to eliminate distillation for the last 40 years. It alleges that 3% of U.S. energy use is by distillation and they regard that as significant,” says Michael R. Resetarits, technical director of Fractionation Research Inc., Bartlesville, Okla. He points to two technologies that might provide substantial energy savings: heat-integrated distillation columns (HIDiC) and microchannel distillation.

“HIDiC represents the Holy Grail of distillation in that it attempts to achieve the separation via the minimum theoretical heat input,” notes Resetarits. By combining rectifying and stripping columns in an annular arrangement so they exchange heat along their lengths, and elevating pressure in the rectifying section, HIDiC can achieve energy savings of more than 50%.

A properly designed system can save up to 60% of the energy required for separation — and reduce condenser duty and, consequently, condenser size by up to 60%, concludes advanced modeling technology and model-based services provider Process Systems Enterprise (PSE), London, U.K., after investigating HIDiC using its proprietary gPROMS advanced process modeling software (http://www.psenterprise.com/gproms/applications/separation/hidic.html).

However, despite its promise, HIDiC remains a pilot process. “It has yet to be commercialized,” notes Professor Shuzo Ohe of the graduate school of engineering, industrial chemistry, University of Tokyo, Japan, who has worked with the technology for a number of years.

Meanwhile, development of microchannel distillation technology is progressing, e.g., at Velocys, Plain City, OH, part of Oxford Catalysts Group, Oxford, U.K. The approach aims to provide high efficiency mass transfer in a very small package.

 Microchannel distillation differs from conventional distillation processes in that liquid and vapor phases flow counter-currently within a single thin vertical channel as opposed to in separate tall towers. Depending on the application, microchannel channel diameters range from 0.1 mm to 10 mm. Modules for small speciality chemical units may contain a single process channel while those for large-scale commodity plants might consist of thousands of process channels incorporated into a unit the size of a two-foot cube. In either case, capacity expansion simply involves “numbering up” or linking more modules together.

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