In our previous blog posting, we discussed Possible Drivers and Goals for Building and Operating Pilot Plants. We highlighted the major reasons for the use of pilot plants could include not only scale up, but also, overall process validation, economic process validation, and production of sample or market development quantities of product.

In reality, there are usually multiple reasons for building a pilot plant, each of which is important to the owners or sponsors of the project. Therefore, it is essential that the team designing and building the pilot plant understands all of these “Owner’s Project Objectives.” These objectives include the major reasons for the pilot plant as previously discussed, but also include a next level of details, goals, and resources. The project team should also clearly understand the order of priority of these objectives.  Poor or incomplete understanding of design objectives may lead to delays, cost overruns or a system that fails to deliver the desired product or process information.

The first step in the project and design planning process must be collecting information regarding the expectations of the project owner relating to the pilot project. The team must interview and quiz the decision makers regarding their goals and about what they hope to achieve by building a pilot plant. In case of multiple objectives, the order of priority must also be well established and should be clarified with follow-up questions to remove any ambiguity. Asking the right questions helps further the thought process and highlights aspects that the owner’s technical and business techno-economic-chemical-design-technology-improvement may not have initially considered. The technical team that will eventually operate the pilot plant must also be consulted regarding the more technical aspects of the project.  The decision process should be documented and approved by the sponsors so that it can be referred to later as a key, governing document for the project.

The project team should structure the questions asked of the project sponsors to reveal the underlying project objectives. The most important of these questions is the definition of technical success. This reveals the primary objective behind building a pilot plant. It could be proof of concept, achieving a certain level of quality or yield, minimization of capital or operational costs of a commercial plant or a more specific technical goal such as extended catalyst life or a lower operating temperature. There could be specific health, safety and environmental objectives such as compliance with new or existing safety regulations, limiting the amount of effluents or emissions, or replacement of hazardous materials with safer alternatives. The desired life expectancy of the pilot plant is also determined by these objectives. Is it just a stepping stone to building a large-scale facility or is it intended to be a permanent installation for R&D purposes?

The project team must also be aware of the resources that the sponsors are willing to allocate to the pilot project. These resources include the total amount budgeted and the total time allowed to take the project from design to commissioning. Any cash flow limitations or essential milestones must also be specified early in the project. This information helps answer the standard project techno-economic-chemical-design-technology-improvement question:  What’s the order of importance between cost, schedule, and quality of the project? For some projects, the desired product specifications or process information trumps all other considerations. For others, time might be the limiting commodity or budgetary limitations may force a compromise on design specifications.

A good pilot plant design and plan is one that meets or exceeds the sponsors’ expectations.  That is difficult to achieve if the sponsors’ expectations are not well understood to begin with.  Proper understanding of the sponsors’ objectives is the key to a good design. It is the responsibility of the project team to ensure that these objectives are fully defined, understood, addressed and realized.

In our next post in this series, we will discuss how some objectives can specifically impact the overall design basis of a pilot plant.

Click here to read Part 1: Possible Drivers and Goals for Building and Operating Pilot Plants.

If you have any questions about MATRIC’s pilot plant capabilities, please contact Rob Nunley.