Chemical reactions: How drives and motors can deliver greater sustainability for the chemical industry

Nov. 27, 2023
By Sami Hietala, Global Segment Manager, Heavy Industry, ABB Drives

The chemical industry is fundamental to the global economy. It contributes trillions of dollars each year, and it is estimated that 96 percent of all finished goods rely on chemical products. However, the sector also has a significant carbon footprint. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, the sector is the largest industrial energy consumer and the third-largest direct emitter of CO2. 

The IEA also forecasts that the chemicals industry is not on track to achieve Net Zero by 2050. As the international community places pressure on all industries to become more sustainable, more must be done to reduce this essential sector’s energy use. According to a report by McKinsey, the chemical sector must address four key areas – including “improving energy efficiency." Greater efficiency is achievable using today’s technology and high energy prices have created a powerful business incentive, so it is a logical place to start. 

Energy use in the chemical sector 

The chemical industry is extremely broad, and it produces a range of products through a variety of processes. However, there are several common factors. One common factor is that many chemical manufacturing processes are very energy intensive, especially in petrochemicals.

A significant amount of the energy use is unnecessary, as many processes rely on older, less energy-efficient equipment, especially electric motor-driven equipment such as pumps, fans, compressors, cooling towers, agitators and extruders. This makes motors an ideal candidate for improving energy efficiency. 

Another common factor is the need for precision. Almost anywhere a motor is used, it can be paired with a variable speed drive (VSD), also known as a variable frequency drive (VFD), or just drive. Drives offer the dual advantages of improving energy efficiency and enabling greater control over the motor’s speed and torque. Despite these advantages, it is estimated that just 23% of the world’s industrial motors are equipped with drives.

More efficient motors

Almost every process in the chemical industry involves an electric motor. Many countries use the efficiency classes laid out by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to describe a motor’s efficiency. These IE classes range from the least efficient, IE1, to the most efficient, IE5. Each increase in IE number, such as from IE2 to IE3, reflects a 20 percent decrease in energy losses. Lower energy losses mean that the motor is more efficient.

For new installations and upgrades, IE3 motors are the minimum permitted by law. After July 2023, new installations and upgrades in Europe will require IE4 for certain types of motors as the minimum due to the latest Ecodesign regulation. However, these regulations do not address older motors that are already in use. As a result, many facilities continue to use inefficient IE2 – or even IE1 – motors, unnecessarily wasting power.

A solution is to replace older motors with newer, more efficient models. The most efficient motors on the market today are IE5 synchronous reluctance motors (SynRM). Switching to an IE5 SynRM motor cuts energy loses by 40% compared to an IE3 motor. When paired with a drive, it has been demonstrated to cut energy use by up to 25% in most common applications. This creates a robust financial case for upgrading. Given current energy prices, upgrades quickly pay for themselves and continue to produce savings throughout the motor’s lifetime. 

Driving greater efficiency 

New and existing motors can also be paired with drives. Without a drive, operators control a motor’s speed and torque by throttling it. This is like leaving your foot on a car’s accelerator pedal and controlling its speed using the brakes – it is very inefficient. Drives, on the other hand, enable operators to precisely control a motor’s speed and torque to match them to the requirements of the task. Any time the motor is not running at full speed, it saves power. This is particularly significant as the relationship between speed and power use is not linear – slowing a motor by just 20 percent can result in energy savings of 50 percent. 

In addition to the energy saving advantages, the level of control that drives enable offers advantages – including for constant torque applications. By automatically controlling the speed of motors throughout the production process, drives enable operators to improve the quality of their chemical products. For applications where motors produce significant harmonics on the electrical network, ultra-low harmonic (ULH) drives are available to mitigate the problem. 

Smarter and safer 

Reliable motors and drives – as well as programable logic controllers (PLCs) – are also essential to maintaining uptime and safety. Fortunately, modern equipment offers advantages in both areas. 

Modern motors are more reliable than older models. SynRM motors offer significant advantages here, as they operate at a cooler temperature. They are also simple to maintain and offer higher reliability. When combined with digitalization, facilities can even shift to a preventative maintenance model and monitor equipment condition automatically and in real-time, which saves money.

Drives used in hazardous environments must be designed to meet the requirements set by the chemical industry. For applications in explosive atmospheres, motor-drive packages are available with ATEX certification. The new IE5 SynRM Increased Safety motor and drive package from ABB offers increased safety and can achieve energy savings of up to 25 percent – or more, in some circumstances – and is compatible with hazardous environment requirements.

Drives and PLCs enable real-time data gathering and control to enable operators to improve their facility’s performance, reduce costs, and deliver higher quality-products. For example, as well as supporting efficiency and safety, PLCs enable facilities to optimize the production of their chemical processes through automation. 

Boosting efficiency at a Norwegian fertilizer facility 

To understand the real-world potential of these technologies, we can look at the case of Yara, the world’s leading manufacturer of nitrogen-based fertilizers. As part of a sustainability-focused upgrade, Yara upgraded around 1,000 low-voltage motors at its main production site in Norway. Older models were replaced with IE3 models, and approximately 75 percent were paired with ACS880 industrial drives, including wall-mounted and cabinet-built variants. This change alone saves the facility the equivalent of 16 gigawatt-hours (GWh) every year. 

The next phase of the project will involve installing 2,500 new motors, including IE5 SynRM motors, mostly in pump and fan applications. SynRM motors are always paired with drives, which makes them ideal for applications such as these, where continual speed adjustments are required to maintain a constant output. The changes at the plant will save a total of 32 to 40 GWh annually. This would eliminate CO2 emissions equivalent to 12-19 kilotons every year – the same amount produced by 14,000 average cars. 

Efficiency is achievable and affordable 

Chemicals are necessary for everything from manufacturing to food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, water processing and more, so it is essential that we find ways to produce and process them while minimizing their environmental impact. Fortunately, modern motor, drive and PLC technology enables facilities to cut costs while increasing efficiency – a true win-win.

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