Blog search results for Tag: process

Science & Innovation

 Concorde

The Concorde was the first commercial supersonic aircraft to have been built. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, a chance encounter under the wings of Concorde at Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, with Trinity College Dublin Professor Johnny Coleman, would set in motion a series of events that would lead, six years later, to the development of a 20t/year graphene manufacturing plant.

As soon as we got talking, I was impressed by Johnny’s practical, non-nonsense approach to solving the scalability issue with graphene production.

Coleman is a physicist, not a chemist, and believed that the solution lay in mechanical techniques. Following the conference, Thomas Swan agreed to fund his group for four years to develop a scalable process for the manufacture of graphene.

 graphene

Just a nanometer thick, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms joined in a hexagonal lattice. Image: Pixabay

Coleman and his team initially considered sonication – when sound waves are applied to a sample to agitate its particles – but quickly ruled it out due to its lack of scalability. He then sent one of his researchers out to the shops to buy a kitchen blender. They threw together some graphite, water, and a squirt of washing-up liquid into the blender, switched it on, and went for a cup of coffee.

When they later analysed the ‘grey soup’ they had created, they found they had successfully made few-layer graphene platelets. The group then spent months optimising the technique and worked closely with Thomas Swan scientists to transfer the process back to Thomas Swan’s manufacturing HQ in Consett, Ireland.

spongebob gif

Originally posted by spongebob-squarepants-is-my-hero

Graphene is 300 times stronger than steel.

The plant can make up to 20t/year of high quality graphene. It uses a high sheer continuous process to exfoliate graphite flakes into few-layer graphene platelets in an aqueous dispersion.

The dispersion is stabilised by adding various surfactants before separating out the graphene using continuous cross-flow filtration devices developed with the support of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – a government initiative focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in specific research areas.

 sticky tape

 

Using sticky tape, scientists pulled off graphene sheets from a block of graphite. Image: Pixabay

This de-risking of process development using a Catapult is a classic example of effective government intervention to support innovative SMEs. CPI not only showed us it worked, but also optimised the technique for us.

The company quickly realised that selling graphene in a powder form with no application data was not going to work. Instead, we developed a range of performance data to assist the sales team by highlighting what graphene can do if adopted into a range of applications.

 

The potential of graphene can be commercialised using composites. Video: The University of Manchester – The home of graphene

We also moved to make the product available in ‘industry friendly’ forms such as epoxy resin dispersions or polymer masterbatches. This move, slightly downstream from the raw material, has recently led to Thomas Swan announcing its intention to expand its range of formulated graphene materials, with a prototype product focusing on the manufacture of a carbon fibre composite.

Our application data shows that graphene has significant benefits as an industrial additive. Presenting this data to composite-using downstream customers is starting to open doors and create supply chain partnerships to get a raw material all the way to a fully integrated application.

 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The move downstream, to develop useable forms of graphene, is common in the industry, with most graphene suppliers now making their products available as an ink, dispersion or masterbatch. Thomas Swan’s experience with single-wall carbon nanotubes has made us aware of the need to take more control of graphene application development to ensure rapid market adoption.

Graphene applications drawing most interest include composites, conductive inks, battery materials, and resistive heating panels, although much of this demand is to satisfy commercial R&D rather than full commercial production.

Graphene science | Mikael Fogelström | TEDxGöteborg. Video: TEDx Talks

Thanks to innovations like our continuous high sheer manufacturing process, Thomas Swan believes that graphene is about to become very easy to make. Before it can be considered a commodity, however, it will also need to deliver real value in downstream applications. Therefore, the company is also increasing its efforts to understand market driven demand and application development.

As the initial hype over the ‘wonder’ material graphene starts to wane, progress is being made to develop scalable manufacturing techniques and to ensure graphene delivers some much-promised benefits to downstream applications.

Sustainability & Environment

The Haber process currently helps feed more than half the world, producing 150m tonnes of ammonia a year. This is forecast to rise further, in line with the food demand of a growing world population.

And yet, it has serious drawbacks. In its traditional form, the process requires high temperatures – around 500°C – to make the extremely stable molecule nitrogen reactive.

fire gif

Originally posted by foreverfallll

The Haber process takes place at extremely high temperatures, similar to that of an average fire.

It also needs high pressure to shift the equilibrium towards the desired product. The process is sensitive to oxygen, meaning that nitrogen and hydrogen must be introduced as purified elements, rather than as air and water.

These requirements together make the process extremely energy-hungry; estimated to consume between 1% and 2% of global primary energy production. In 2010, the ammonia industry emitted 245m tonnes of CO2 globally, corresponding to half the UK’s emissions. 

 Carl Bosch

The Haber process was developed by Carl Bosch (left) and Fritz Haber (right) in the early 20th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In nature, the process relies on the highly complex enzyme nitrogenase, operating at an ambient pressure and temperature. But using the entire biological system would not be economical for large-scale industrial synthesis, and thus the search for an inorganic system that matches the performance of the biological has become an important challenge.  

In recent years, novel electrochemical approaches and new catalysts have yielded promising results suggesting that, at least for small-scale synthesis, other ways may have a future.

The chemical reaction that feeds the world. Video: TED-Ed  

‘The last [few] years brought some spectacular results on ammonia synthesis research,’ comments Hans Fredriksson from Syngaschem at Eindhoven, Netherlands.

‘On the catalyst side, there is the discovery of ‘super promoters’, helping N2 dissociation, allowing lower process temperatures, while optimised catalyst formulations yield significant improvements in activity. 

‘Perhaps even more exciting are new approaches in processing, for example by electrochemistry, or simply running the reaction in an electric field, or bringing plasmas into play,’ he said.

electricity gif

Originally posted by mondo80s90spictorama

In 2013, Shanwen Tao, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, and colleagues demonstrated for the first time the production of ammonia from air and water, at ambient temperature and pressure, using a proton-conducting Nafion membrane in an electrochemical approach. 

Nafion, a Teflon-like material that conducts cations but neither electrons nor anions, is also used in fuel cells. 

‘Electrochemical synthesis of ammonia is an important new approach for efficient synthesis of ammonia using green renewable electricity as the energy source. This could be a key technology for a possible ‘ammonia economy’,’ where ammonia replaces or complements hydrogen as an energy carrier, says Tao.

 renewable energy

Researchers hope new approaches will be supported by renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions. Image: Pexels

Separate efforts using different routes are being developed in Japan, with a particular focus on ruthenium as an efficient catalyst. One approach is to apply super promoters to provide electrons that destabilise nitrogen by weakening the triple bond and making the molecule more reactive for ammonia synthesis.

This was first reported in 2012 by Hideo Hosono’s group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who used ruthenium catalysts in combination with ‘electrides’ – a new class of ionic materials where electrons serve as the anions.

The method operates at atmospheric pressure and temperatures between 250 and 400°C, and hydrogen poisoning of ruthenium catalysts is no longer a problem.

 Ruthenium

Ruthenium is a type of metal in the platinum group. Image: Metalle-w/      Wikimedia Commons

‘This catalyst exhibits the highest activity and excellent long-term stability,’ says Hosono, who sees the future of his methods in distributed, small-scale applications of ammonia synthesis.

Hans Niemantsverdriet, director of SynCat@Beijing, China, acknowledges the rapid progress being made, but also strikes a note of caution.

‘In spite of interesting discoveries, I find it hard to imagine that these improvements will be able to replace the current large-scale and fully optimised technology,’ he says. ‘In the fertiliser area, novel technology will at best become a niche market for very special situations. Also, the CO2 footprint is hardly diminished.’

 fertiliser3

Ammonia is a core component of fertiliser, feeding nitrogen to plants for photosynthesis. Image: Maurice van Bruggen/Wikimedia Commons

In the long term, Niemantsverdriet has hope for the ammonia economy as championed by Tao and others, providing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energies. 

‘I strongly believe that there will be scope for large industrial parks where this technology can be cleverly integrated with gasification of coal in China, and perhaps biomass elsewhere,’ he says. ‘If dimensioned properly, this has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the future.’

 

Sustainability & Environment

The Haber process currently helps feed more than half the world, producing 150m tonnes of ammonia a year. This is forecast to rise further, in line with the food demand of a growing world population.

And yet, it has serious drawbacks. In its traditional form, the process requires high temperatures – around 500°C – to make the extremely stable molecule nitrogen reactive.

fire gif

Originally posted by foreverfallll

The Haber process takes place at extremely high temperatures, similar to that of an average fire.

It also needs high pressure to shift the equilibrium towards the desired product. The process is sensitive to oxygen, meaning that nitrogen and hydrogen must be introduced as purified elements, rather than as air and water.

These requirements together make the process extremely energy-hungry; estimated to consume between 1% and 2% of global primary energy production. In 2010, the ammonia industry emitted 245m tonnes of CO2 globally, corresponding to half the UK’s emissions. 

 Carl Bosch

The Haber process was developed by Carl Bosch (left) and Fritz Haber (right) in the early 20th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In nature, the process relies on the highly complex enzyme nitrogenase, operating at an ambient pressure and temperature. But using the entire biological system would not be economical for large-scale industrial synthesis, and thus the search for an inorganic system that matches the performance of the biological has become an important challenge.  

In recent years, novel electrochemical approaches and new catalysts have yielded promising results suggesting that, at least for small-scale synthesis, other ways may have a future.

The chemical reaction that feeds the world. Video: TED-Ed  

‘The last [few] years brought some spectacular results on ammonia synthesis research,’ comments Hans Fredriksson from Syngaschem at Eindhoven, Netherlands.

‘On the catalyst side, there is the discovery of ‘super promoters’, helping N2 dissociation, allowing lower process temperatures, while optimised catalyst formulations yield significant improvements in activity. 

‘Perhaps even more exciting are new approaches in processing, for example by electrochemistry, or simply running the reaction in an electric field, or bringing plasmas into play,’ he said.

electricity gif

Originally posted by mondo80s90spictorama

In 2013, Shanwen Tao, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, and colleagues demonstrated for the first time the production of ammonia from air and water, at ambient temperature and pressure, using a proton-conducting Nafion membrane in an electrochemical approach. 

Nafion, a Teflon-like material that conducts cations but neither electrons nor anions, is also used in fuel cells. 

‘Electrochemical synthesis of ammonia is an important new approach for efficient synthesis of ammonia using green renewable electricity as the energy source. This could be a key technology for a possible ‘ammonia economy’,’ where ammonia replaces or complements hydrogen as an energy carrier, says Tao.

 renewable energy

Researchers hope new approaches will be supported by renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions. Image: Pexels

Separate efforts using different routes are being developed in Japan, with a particular focus on ruthenium as an efficient catalyst. One approach is to apply super promoters to provide electrons that destabilise nitrogen by weakening the triple bond and making the molecule more reactive for ammonia synthesis.

This was first reported in 2012 by Hideo Hosono’s group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who used ruthenium catalysts in combination with ‘electrides’ – a new class of ionic materials where electrons serve as the anions.

The method operates at atmospheric pressure and temperatures between 250 and 400°C, and hydrogen poisoning of ruthenium catalysts is no longer a problem.

 Ruthenium

Ruthenium is a type of metal in the platinum group. Image: Metalle-w/      Wikimedia Commons

‘This catalyst exhibits the highest activity and excellent long-term stability,’ says Hosono, who sees the future of his methods in distributed, small-scale applications of ammonia synthesis.

Hans Niemantsverdriet, director of SynCat@Beijing, China, acknowledges the rapid progress being made, but also strikes a note of caution.

‘In spite of interesting discoveries, I find it hard to imagine that these improvements will be able to replace the current large-scale and fully optimised technology,’ he says. ‘In the fertiliser area, novel technology will at best become a niche market for very special situations. Also, the CO2 footprint is hardly diminished.’

 fertiliser3

Ammonia is a core component of fertiliser, feeding nitrogen to plants for photosynthesis. Image: Maurice van Bruggen/Wikimedia Commons

In the long term, Niemantsverdriet has hope for the ammonia economy as championed by Tao and others, providing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energies. 

‘I strongly believe that there will be scope for large industrial parks where this technology can be cleverly integrated with gasification of coal in China, and perhaps biomass elsewhere,’ he says. ‘If dimensioned properly, this has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the future.’

 

Sustainability & Environment

Scientists have developed a new process to manufacture ‘green’ plastic that could significantly reduce costs and provide a cleaner alternative to current materials.

Using fructose and gamma-Valerolactone (GVL) – a plant-derived solvent – researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,US, have found a way to produce furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) that is both cost-effective and high-yielding, meaning a large amount of the product can be made. FDCA is a precursor to the renewable plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF).

 furandicarboxylic acid

A crystal of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a plastic precursor created with biomass instead of petroleum. Image: Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde for UW-Madison

‘Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,’ says co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. ‘You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.’

Currently, the plastics market relies heavily on the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum, to meet increasing demand for plastic products.

How is FDCA made in industry? Video: Avantium

The team, alongside Motagamwala, have been able to convert fructose to FDCA in a two-step process using a solvent system of one-part GVL and one-part water.

According to Motagamwala, using GVL as a solvent is the key to reducing the high expenses that FDCA production incurs. ‘Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in [GVL], you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent,’ he says.

 Fructose

Fructose is a plant-based sugar found in most fruits. Image: Pexels

The team’s study also includes an extensive techno-economic analysis of the ‘green’ process, suggesting that FDCA could be produced for around £1,000 a tonne – reduced further if the reaction time and cost of feedstock could be lowered through further research.

A more cost-effective alternative to PET could have a significant impact on the plastics market, which produces an estimated 1.5m tonnes a year.

coke gif

Originally posted by peteneems

Major companies – from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble – are committing to 100% use of PEF in their plastic products, providing a huge market need for its precursor FDCA.

‘We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry has been waiting for,’ says James Dumesic, team-leader and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.

 plastic waste

Introducing cost-competitive renewable plastics to the market could significantly reduce plastic waste. Image: Pixabay

‘Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.’

Process development is an essential area of research that underpins advances in a huge range of industries. 

Science & Innovation

In recent years, companies in chemicals and other process industries have been giving much greater priority to process safety improvements, and a safety culture has been created among employees.

Consequently, industrial incidents have been decreasing, particularly in North America and Europe. In the US, a total in 2016 of 213 incidents – covering leaks, fires, explosions, and injuries – was the lowest for 10 years, according to figures from the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Responsible Care programme. The ACC’s member companies operate about 2,000 facilities – in 2016, half of its members had no incidents.

Now, chemical companies are confident they can reduce this even further. LyondellBasell, the US-based petrochemicals and polymers multinational, is aiming under its GoalZero programme for no incidents at all. BASF has set itself a goal of an annual rate of process safety incidents of at least 0.5 per one million working hours by 2025 – a quarter of the level in 2015.

 

Automating safety

Digitalisation should massively improve safety through initiatives like the use of sensors to signal deficiencies in equipment. Labelled Industry 4.0, digitisation represents the fourth generation of industrialisation. It has the potential to revolutionise the whole value chain in chemicals and other industries, particularly the manufacturing stages.

In manufacturing, digitalisation can lower costs and improve efficiencies from labour to research and development. In process safety, the main advantages are automation via plant monitoring sensors, drastically reducing manpower. Digitalisation can bring down maintenance costs by as much as 40%, and reduce total plant downtime by 30–50%.

Industry 4.0 is not just about collecting and delivering huge amounts of data to central points, but also about processing and analysing big data. With process safety, it provides analytics platforms for achieving significant improvements in safety performance. A key feature of the current digitalisation wave is that the automation system can be designed in-house by company employees, using computer tools supplied by software specialists. This enables companies to tailor how they use the new technology.

 BASF scientists

BASF scientists celebrate the installation of its new supercomputer. Image: BASF

BASF has embarked on an ambitious digitalisation programme with the aid of a supercomputer installed this summer at its main site at Ludwigshafen. A primary purpose of the supercomputer is to boost the company’s R&D performance, but it will also make a substantial contribution to advancing process safety.

Martin Brudermueller, BASF vice-chairman and chief technology officer, said in June 2017, ‘As long as we have the data we can use the supercomputer to analyse the causes of process safety incidents. But we are more likely to use it to introduce safer process systems – how we can predict and prevent accidents happening with the help of sensors. We will be able to work out, for example, the level of seriousness of warning signs from sensors, particularly in relation to the degradation of materials.’

Meanwhile, German speciality chemicals company, Evonik has seen its rate of incident frequency more than halved since 2008, likely due partly to the application of digital technologies. It wants to use automation to identify and prevent process safety risks.

German polymers and coatings producer Covestro has started collecting data from its plants worldwide on every leak, as well as minor and near-miss incidents. The data are carefully analysed to determine causes, with the results and corrective actions being publicised throughout the group.

high five gif

Originally posted by qualcomm

Risks 4.0

Chemicals and other process industries have a long history of collecting, interconnecting and analysing data to gain added value, but OSIsoft has warned that the large amounts of data yielded by digitalisation will be a big test for existing IT systems.

Some process safety specialists fear that digitalisation could also lead technical staff to become disengaged from safety issues as responsibilities for checking equipment outside control rooms become automated.

‘To be successful, digitalisation projects in areas like process safety need to be matched properly with human factors,’ explains David Embrey, a consultant at Human Reliability in Dalton, Lancashire. ‘Some schemes can be too technology-centric, with not enough consideration of interaction with people.

‘The introduction of new technologies always brings new risks. For a start, will the digital technologies be accepted by the workforce when they are replacing tasks done by humans?’

The ultimate objective behind digitalisation is analytics. Huge amounts of data can be accumulated to create algorithms that tell companies what to do to increase productivity and raise efficiencies, for example through big cuts in downtime as a result of decreases in process safety incidents.