In March 2014, members of the MATRIC team, along with multiple people from one of our customer’s technical group, were jammed into a tiny control room eagerly watching the first ever start-up of a new sustainable technology. Right before the start-up, the customer’s plant manager turned and asked, “Do you think this is really going to work?” This technology was five years in the making from concept to laboratory to pilot plant to commercialization. As I thought about the question, and what had occurred over the past five years, I recalled the original laboratory investigations, the scale-up of the technology to the pilot plant level, optimization of the process, and following the path that landed us inside that control room that day.
Remembering the effort and methodology, I looked at the plant manager and said “Yes, Absolutely!! This is going to work.”
The commercialization of new technologies faces tremendous hurdles, making commercialization of a sustainable technology a rare feat that is the result of thorough planning and execution. This article will highlight the methodology of sustainable process design through the experience of a recent successful implementation of new emission reduction/recovery technology. Based upon this real life experience, we will cover the key objectives of designing sustainable processes, the challenges, and the necessary elements to make such efforts successful. Finally, we’ll discuss the key steps of going from initial lab work, pilot plant efforts, and final process optimization.
Sustainable Process Design Objectives
Sustainability in the chemical industry is a relative term. It’s a goal to strive for, but getting there is a stepwise approach that shoots to achieve “more sustainable” as compared with the competition. This particular technology, as an example, uses a green, non-hazardous sorbent that can be recycled for years. It also implements energy recovery, minimizes waste and has low energy use through tight parameter control. In a broader approach, let’s take a look at some of the questions to answer when defining your sustainable process design objectives.
What are your process design objectives and where should you look for sustainable design improvements or optimization? Here is a non-inclusive list of some areas to consider:
- New/alternative raw materials: toxic to non-toxic, renewable, green
- Alternative process chemistry: replace intermediates with non-toxic ones
- Alternative and flexible process design: pretreatment, RO in place of distillation
- Recoverable waste streams: less water in waste, less toxics
- Energy optimization: integration, pinch point
- New end product: changing specifications
What are the drivers? The existing situation, customer, market, political changes? What is it exactly that is driving you to a more sustainable approach? Understanding the drivers to these complex problems of society and business allows delivery of unique solutions.
Keep in mind that sustainable process design, just like any process design, will be in competition with the economics. And unfortunately, or fortunately, the economics always win.
Sustainable Process Design Challenges
What are some of the challenges of sustainable process design?
- Commercialization: getting to the commercial scale, economically, is a huge undertaking. Tackling this challenge and reducing risk is where the pilot plant excels.
- Feedstock: For example, switching to oil-producing plants for diesel fuels has multiple challenges: impurities, seasonality, market cycles, and location of sources. Understanding your market early on in the concept stage will better position you for success toward commercialization.
- Process steps to consider: Product yield. Dilute product: separations, energy, complexity. Hazardous materials: substitution, elimination, and reduction. Product quality: impurities and byproducts. All are challenges, but this where MATRIC’s Ph.D. level chemists and engineers can help.
- Economics: The final process design must be equal to or more economical than the competition.
Sustainable Process Design: A Work Process
Regardless of where you start, sustainable process designs require a diverse thought process and a broad understanding of the value chain. Here is what you need to get there:
- Experienced team and diverse backgrounds are key: chemistry alternative knowledge, process alternatives knowledge, market knowledge, techno-economic knowledge.
- Infrastructure is necessary: validating the chemistry and verifying process feasibility.
- A systematic and stepwise approach with simulation and economics.
- Discipline methodology of risk reduction.
Finding this type of uncommon expertise and infrastructure is at the heart of the value MATRIC brings to every project.
With these elements and infrastructure in place for successful sustainable process design, it is possible to begin moving the technology from concept through final optimization.
At the beginning of this project, there was merely “the concept”. This is an early on discussion that defines the idea. What exactly is the idea? Who are the stakeholders? What are the sponsors’ expectations? What is the end goal? What are the technology requirements? Can it be done and kept inherently safe? And finally, what does success look like? Defining these questions upfront in collaboration with the sponsor drives home MATRIC’s fast-paced market-driven innovation and creates value for our customers.
Commercialization: Concept to Lab
After understanding the concept, moving to the laboratory is essential. The lab is where chemistry is validated, concepts are tested, and process chemistry byproducts are understood. Byproducts of the chemistry should never be taken lightly as how they are minimized and managed will be an integral part of the technology.
The lab also offers the first opportunity to close the material and energy balances. Some of the key elements to understand are the concentrations (products), separations (byproducts), waste streams, and energy demand.
All this work feeds back into a techno-economic model for continuous concept validation.
Commercialization: Lab to Pilot Plant
Scaling up to the pilot plant is the next step in proof testing and verifying feasibility of the concept. It provides more validation of the model, which further reduces risk.
Piloting begins by prioritizing the major process steps according to risk. Skip the known technologies until demonstration is required and focus on the most risky pieces first.
Finally, closing the recycle loops is very important and critical as assumptions can be way off. Recycle loops and longer term process testing also allow further studies of side chemistry and non-reversible by-product accumulation rates and corrosion rates. Knowing how to separate and handle the by-products will be an integral part of the technology.
Energy efficiency is challenging to demonstrate at the pilot plant level. Heat interchangers can be incorporated, but at the lab and pilot scale heat losses can be large simply due to smaller size of equipment and piping. Simulations in parallel are a must.
All data goes back into the techno-economic model, which checks and updates the material and energy balances, further opening up more insight to the economics. Is the process advantaged? Are we back to the drawing board? Or better yet, on to process optimization?
Commercialization: Process Optimization & Continuous Process Improvement
Further work in understanding, optimizing, and improving the technology will not only reduce commercialization risks but provide for a more profitable and advantageous technology. During some of these longer testing campaigns things to study will be: by-product reaction rates, slip streams, energy minimization, control parameters, corrosion rates, pre-treatment options, and optimization.
Once all parameters are understood and risk is minimized, the technology is handed off to a detailed engineering group to construct the detailed P&IDs, material and energy balances, and other key parts of the licensing package.
MATRIC’s uncommon expertise and infrastructure
Standing in the control room that day watching the control screen as the new process was started up, we saw the emissions of the particular gas pollutant drop and even go below target levels, as proved in the pilot plant. The technology was a success.
With MATRIC’s uncommon expertise and infrastructure, our customers are able to:
- Develop, design and deploy technologies that allow them to meet cost, growth, sustainability and mission goals.
- Accelerate technology discovery and development to advance critical business and societal objectives.
- Mitigate significant risks associated with new technology deployment.
David Statler is a Research Chemical Engineer and Project Manager at MATRIC, a strategic innovation partner, located in South Charleston, WV. After completing his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at West Virginia University he joined MATRIC in 2008 to move new technology ideas from concept to laboratory to pilot plant to commercialization. As project manager, he is responsible for leading the design, construction, operation, experimentation, optimization and troubleshooting of new chemical processes at the pilot plant level to get ideas from concept to commercialization. Recently he played a major role in defining, developing, and demonstrating a sustainable process of an emission reduction/recovery technology. This process was successfully commercialized in 2014 and he led MATRIC’s onsite team in startup, process troubleshooting, and analytical support.
MATRIC is the strategic innovation partner of choice for customers where science and technology provide a competitive advantage. MATRIC’s mission is to deliver solutions to complex problems of society and business through market-driven innovation in chemical process and advanced software technologies.
— For more information, please contact David Statler.