A new Dechema paper on ‘MODULAR PLANTS’ summarises results from some recently finished publicly funded research and innovation projects that successfully demonstrated the economic and technical benefits of the flexible and modular plant concept for the production of fine and specialty chemicals as well as pharmaceuticals pioneered by SusChem's flagship F3 Factory project.
F3 Factory’ project, clearly demonstrate the advantages of operating modular continuous plant processes that are more economical and sustainable than current operations and are only possible due to new types of equipment design, advanced digital process control and online process analytics (PAT).
The Dechema paper discusses the need for further developments including work on standardised interfaces and standards for modular automation, the reliability of modules, sensors and performance control systems, new continuous downstream processing units, how to enable new business and service models that take advantage of flexible and modular plant concept and other boundary conditions such as the regulations required to build and operate such units.
Building on the ‘F3 Factory’ project concept, the Horizon 2020-funded SPIRE project ‘CONSENS’ as one example that is advancing the continuous production of high-value products that meet high quality demands in flexible intensified continuous plants. It achieves this by introducing novel online sensing equipment and closed-loop control of the key product parameters.
If these concepts were applied in industry, the outcomes of the projects could result in significant cost savings and reduction of CO2 emissions (estimated at 176,000 tonnes per year), less consumption of solvents in pharmaceutical and specialty chemical sectors, and a significant acceleration in the development of new products (estimated at two-times faster additional innovations and halving the time-to-market).
The European chemical industry is facing increasing market competition from outside Europe and challenges with product launches in new and often volatile markets that means a fast response to market requirements and reduced investment risk for new plants is required. In addition, shorter product life cycles and smaller product volumes due to diversification and increasing specialisation of product ranges due to increased customer-orientated products are a feature of the market.
"SusChem has highlighted the modular plant concept enabled by the latest digital technologies as one of its current core priorities," says Martin Winter, Cefic Innovation Manager with responsibility for SusChem activities in this area. "And we are convinced such developments can make a very high impact in modernising Europe's chemicals production capabilities, introduce significantly higher resource efficiency, and would position the European chemical industry in the lead in the race for competitiveness and sustainability."
White paper discussion
This Dechema white paper was produced by the ProcessNet Temporary Working Group on “Modular Plants” and included industry representatives from BASF, Bayer, Clariant, Evonik, Invite and Merck as well as the universities of Ruhr-Universität Bochum and TU Dortmund.
The paper assessed the results of recently completed public funded projects that had demonstrated successfully the technical and economic benefits of modular plants and their applicability especially for small to medium scale (typically 0.1 – 1000 tonnes per year) continuous production.
The experts from across the chemical industries agreed that such modular plant concepts have significant economic potential. General concepts for modular production and the required enabling technologies for process intensification have been jointly developed in projects such as the F3 Factory and CoPIRIDE projects or the ENPRO initiative for improved energy efficiency and process intensification in the German chemical industry.
Writing in a preface to the white paper Dr. Thomas Weber, Chairman of the VCI Committee of Experts Research and Education policy group highlights that these projects have also shown that multiple challenges exist including a lack of standardisation for modules on equipment level, as well as on the level of a complete production plant. This means that 'off the shelf' modules cannot simply be bought on the market, even though it is broadly accepted in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries that this would result in significant advantages in investment costs, time to market and flexibility of production assets.
Associated with this issue is the unmet market need for process control and automation concepts for modular plants. In addition, the discussion of centralised (classical) process control systems versus distributed (modular) process control systems has only just begun. The supporters of a completely modular design strategy envision the various plant modules acting fully automated and autonomously, with communication existing only via interfaces and communication protocols. This would enable a giant leap forward towards full ex-changeability and re-usability for the modular concept. Having an appropriate concept for modulations of process control and automation could become one of the key enablers for modular production plant concepts, said Dr Weber.
There is also need for further development in the field of equipment and apparatus design, for example in separation and purification that could be quickly and directly scaled-up from laboratory to production scale at an acceptable risk. A simple and safe solution for production scale, is number-up instead of a classical scale-up. However, limitations exist as numbering up in many cases can increase investment costs and complexity.
You can download the Dechema White paper here.
It is hoped that this white paper will inspire new ideas and encourage a spirit of innovation across the a cross chemical industry for modular production plant concepts.