In our previous blog posting, we discussed The Importance of Understanding Owner’s Project Objectives for a Pilot Plant. In that discussion, we emphasized that clear understanding of the sponsor’s underlying objectives is the key to a good design. The project team must make an effort to define and comprehend the sponsor’s primary objective and the priority order of any other objectives. This knowledge becomes the basis of major decisions during planning and construction of a pilot plant.

In this post, we are going to discuss some ways in which these differing objectives can affect the design of the pilot plant.  Among the objectives that can affect the design basis are market, financial, technology development and risk mitigation goals that the owner may hold.

First things first:  Impact of Different Objectives on the Sizing Basis

One of the earliest decisions during the design process relates to sizing of the pilot plant. The business and other objectives affect the sizing decision.  As a general guideline, MATRIC recommends building the smallest possible plant while still achieving all of the objectives. Small plants are inherently safer due to lower inventories. They incur lower construction costs and can be commissioned faster. Smaller pilot plants also have lower operating and maintenance costs.  Regardless, there will be specific market development, business, or technology objectives that will have specific impacts on sizing.  In addition, understanding the culture within the project sponsor’s organization can be incredibly important to sizing discussions.

If market development is the main objective of building a pilot plant, the plant should be able to produce samples in sufficient quantity for the customers’ tests and trials. If the purpose of the plant is to bridge the gap between initial sales and construction of a full-scale plant, the sizing requirements are dictated by initial demand forecasts.

Investors and company financial objectives often dictate a proof of concept before significant investment funds are committed to a new technology. The scale of the plant, in these cases, is determined by specific concerns of the investors and their perceived risks regarding the project. The project must be appropriately sized to allay their major concerns.

Technology development objectives can have the most complex impact on sizing decisions. Reliable data collection is necessary to develop a better understanding of the process variables, and a minimum size is required to allow collection of accurate data. The collection of thermodynamic data and reactor performance may only need vessels large enough to overcome localized variations due to wall temperature effects.  Once the thermodynamics are validated, computational models can be used for scale-up and optimization.  On the other hand, if mixing is critical, larger scale testing may be required to give realistic results, even if computational fluid dynamic models are to be used for final scale-up.

Another, less obvious factor that may influence plant sizing is a business’s expectations and culture. Small and large are relative terms. For example, an oil refiner’s idea of a pilot plant may be larger than a specialty chemical producer’s commercial plant. Although it may not ultimately drive the final sizing basis, it is important to understand the sponsor’s background and mindset as you go into these discussions as it gives you more insight as to why they are pushing for a particular sizing basis. Knowing the history and nature of the business can help in understanding the company’s objectives.

Other Design Implications

Before diving into how certain objectives can affect different elements of the design basis, it is often best to begin with a simple question.  The answer to this basic question can have significant design implications. Is the technology well understood? If the answer is yes, it rules out a range of possible objectives for building the pilot plant. If the answer is no, you may need to inform your sponsors that more research is needed to safely design a pilot or a market development plant. If the sponsors highlight a specific aspect of the technology that needs to be better understood, the design team should treat it as a critical objective in the design process.

Market development objectives can have tremendous additional impacts on design.  It is vital to understand whether the sponsors just intend to produce representative material or to closely match the commercial conditions and quality.  Early in the development process, they may just need some basic samples as proof of concept, and optimization can come later. In such cases, a simple design may suffice. Alternatively, they might want the product to closely match commercial expectations for sampling and trials.  In other cases, it may be critical that the samples closely match an existing commercial product so that it can be considered a “drop-in” replacement for that product.  In these cases, the pilot plant must match commercial conditions and designs as closely as possible, and extra time should be planned for optimization to hit the critical quality targets.

Time to market can be another factor to consider in market development efforts.  Objectives that relate to the timeline of the project can significantly influence the design philosophy. If the sponsors are racing a competitor to the market or have critical deadlines, then a simple and fast design should be implemented. In such cases, however, the sponsors should be made aware of the possible risks to technical success and impact on costs that come with moving quickly.

If one of the objectives of the plant is true market development, it should be noted that market development plants are usually much larger than typical pilot plants and may be legally considered as small-scale production plants rather than research facilities. The scale may introduce different regulatory compliance and permit implications. They may also have tax or other financial implications. The sponsors should be made aware of these issues as appropriate and actions taken to ensure compliance with applicable laws.

Business and risk mitigation goals can be the primary objectives for building a pilot or small demonstration plant. Business managers, banks, venture capitalists, and other investors may want to see the process fully demonstrated prior to investing resources in a commercial plant.

In cases where business and financial goals are a major driver, the design depends greatly on what the stakeholders need to see demonstrated to gain confidence. It could be certain critical unit operations or the entire process with closed recycles. They may need to be convinced of the economic viability of the project through evidence of overall yield, process efficiency, energy costs or other economic aspects. Such objectives impact the analytical needs, and equipment must be designed to provide accurate data. If the plant is only for demonstration purposes, it typically has a short life expectancy and investment in overly robust systems may not be necessary.  Manual operation might be acceptable instead of automatic operations. Savings might also be possible when choosing materials of construction, supports and foundation designs as long as safety is not compromised.

Objectives for building a pilot plant have significant design implications. These objectives can help in making the right design choices when building a pilot plant. It is therefore essential that the team working on the pilot plant completely understands the sponsor’s objectives and makes design choices that help achieve these goals.

In our next and final blog in this series, we will be discussing some specific, technical examples of things to consider when technology validation is a primary objective for a pilot plant.  There are many things to consider in this next section depending upon the nature of the technology, how much is already understood about the process and the safety and technical risks.

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

Click here to read Part 2: The Importance of Understanding Owner’s Project Objectives for a Pilot Plant (hyperlink.

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