Let's close some glaring gaps

Dec. 6, 2004
We need effective collaborative efforts to address technical and professional issues
By Mark Rosenzweig

Process simulation has transformed the design of chemical plants and its impact will continue to grow, as the story on page TK points out. However, proprietary modeling environments sometimes have made it difficult for operating companies to incorporate their own software or niche packages from third parties. This has spurred a collaborative effort to foster “plug and play” process-modeling-software components. Air Liquide, BASF, BP, IFP, Dow, Shell Chemicals and TOTAL are leading the initiative, called CAPE-OPEN, says Michel Pons, process simulation group leader for ARKEMA, a new company spun off from ATOFINA, Lyon, France. Pons has been involved with the program.

Todd Willman, president of software vendor EPCON International, Houston, says, “CAPE-OPEN is an owner-operator driven initiative, and it is important for simulation software companies to respond.”

CAPE-OPEN promises to let companies choose “best in breed” software tools without having to worry about interoperability problems, Pons says. “It won’t restrict any more end-users to one suite provided by a specific vendor.”

The list of other joint efforts to address significant problems in the chemical industry is lengthy. Collaboration has given us the safety tools and guidelines from the Center for Chemical Process Safety of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the Responsible Care initiative of the American Chemistry Council, hardware expertise developed under the aegis of groups like the Hydraulic Institute and the Tubular Exchanger Manufacturers Association, and engineering standards from Process Industry Practices (CP, June 2004, p. 5).

The list keeps growing. For instance, in late September, AIChE’s Board of Directors ratified the charter of the Institute for Sustainability (IfS). Its goal includes promoting sustainability R&D and spurring the development of tools for the design of more sustainable products and processes. IfS “holds tremendous potential for ensuring that chemical engineering continues to meet society’s needs in a responsible manner,” says AIChE president Bill Byers. (For more information, see CP, October 2004, p.13.)

However, some areas — technical and professional — still demand more, or more effective, collaboration.

For instance, we need to stir up support for a greater amount of industrially relevant collaborative work on mixing. Mixing operations abound at plants, but so does confusion about how to select equipment and achieve efficient operation (see CP, August 2004, p. 32). Much of the practical expertise resides with vendors. That’s also the case for distillation column internals. Yet, in distillation, vendors, operating companies and engineering firms support the work of Fractionation Research Inc. Why is there not a similar organization focused on mixing?

We could use an effective organization to lobby the government on issues that affect us as individuals, such as outsourcing, visa policy and continuing technical competency. Most technical societies shy from that role. And trade organizations represent employers, not employees, and view some of these issues from a dramatically different perspective.

Likewise, despite successes by some research consortia, communication between industry and academia seems to be getting worse, not better. I’ve heard far too many complaints from professors that industry doesn’t support their work, and from companies that academics don’t care about real-world utility. We shouldn’t let this situation deteriorate further. It is time for collaborative efforts to reinvigorate the dialog and take effective steps to bridge this gap.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at [email protected].