Knowledge Sharing: Umbrella Groups Reign

Organizations foster collaboration to tackle industry challenges

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Third parties can provide an effective means to pool the knowledge and insights of multiple chemical companies or jointly fund projects to address areas of mutual interest. Many engineers undoubtedly know of several such umbrella organizations — e.g., the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium, the Center for Chemical Process Safety, the Center for Operator Performance, Fractionation Research and Heat Transfer Research. Other groups such as the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI), the European Process Safety Centre (EPSC) and the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC) also are playing a significant role.

The GCI, which is run by the American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., develops roundtables focused on fostering collaborations in different industry sectors. The first, the Pharmaceutical Roundtable (GCIPR), began in 2005. It came about as a result of discussions between Merck, Eli Lilly and Pfizer about how they could collaborate with one another in the pre-competitive space to support research, education, global collaboration and projects/tools that would assist company scientists and engineers to integrate green chemistry into their R&D activities.

“What we found overall was strong support for technical efforts that were very expensive and/or long-term for companies to achieve on their own [Figure 1]. That became the model for the roundtables,” notes GCI director David Constable.

So, the GCI identifies a sector and works with industry “champions” to coalesce the roundtables and companies involved. This would include, for example, preparing a preliminary business plan and setting out the strategic priorities. It typically takes up to two years to build trust and convince company representatives that working collaboratively makes sense.

Launched in 2010, the Chemical Manufacturer’s Roundtable (CMR) posed more of a challenge because the industry includes commodity chemical makers that often use high-volume continuous processes, and specialty chemical manufacturers that frequently rely on batch and semi-batch operations.

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“The latter, like pharmaceutical companies, are using similar unit operations and we are finding very much more success with them,” says Constable.

Because of this, these companies — including Solvay, Merck, DuPont, Sigma Aldrich, Albemarle, Arizona Chemical and Dixie Chemical — are better able to exploit bio-derived platform molecules. “They are also much more open to new ideas for collaboration, for example in the developing of toolkits like those developed by the GCIPR, e.g. solvent selection, reagent guides, etc,” he explains.

Key Initiative

Members of the CMR meet monthly to discuss projects and progress. However, more-frequent meetings have been convened to support the Alternative Separations to Distillation Technology (AltSep) roadmap development project.

Recognizing that distillation at the heart of most chemical processes accounts for more than 35% of the energy used in U.S. chemical manufacturing, the GCI and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers have joined forces to work with innovators to find ways to jump-start the industrial application of less-energy-intensive separation processes. This effort has attracted a $500,000 award from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia program.

The first step in the project is creating an innovation roadmap for advancing the rational design and predictable and widespread industrial application of sustainable separation processes.

“Although this project started in July last year, its genesis was two years before that when the chemical manufacturing folks were looking for sweet spots for collaboration. Distillation was one of these; it clicked with everyone immediately. Then the grant opportunity came along and work has been at a furious pace since then,” says Constable.

The size of the grant significantly surpasses that of previous ones won by any of the roundtables. It has prompted the GCI to take a new direction in its collaboration work. Constable explains: “Our idea is to try and grow this into something of a government/industry/academia consortium and we are actively talking about how to do this now. This is a very difficult task, since industry wants solutions yesterday, yet fundamental research on enabling technology is not seen as part of a core strength of a business.”

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