R&D in the Chemical Industry – Houston

My colleagues and I organized an R&D in the Chemical Industry event in Houston, Texas.  The one day event was for R&D chemists and engineers involved in chemical and petrochemical process research, optimization, and scale-up.

The conference was held at the Westin Galleria Houston on August 20. It featured six presenters who shared their experience and best practices. Around 40 participants attended from companies that included:

  • Albemarle
  • Baker Hughes
  • Celanese
  • Dow Chemical
  • ExxonMobil
  • Momentive
  • Nalco
  • Shell

After an introduction to innovative technologies for in situ measurements of process parameters by METTLER TOLEDO technical experts (Anjan Pandey, Dom Hebrault), Allen Beard, Process Development Advisor at Albemarle gave the first talk on the practical aspects of reaction calorimetry for process safety and scale-up. Allen began with an introduction of best process safety practices at Albemarle, followed by two case studies. The first one, a Gatterman-Koch formylation reaction, described the use of reaction calorimetry for in-depth safety and kinetic understanding. Although RC1e calorimetry is well known for process safety investigations, I was especially impressed with Allen’s use of thermal conversion for the full kinetic modeling of the multi-phase Gatterman-Koch reaction (CO gas and multiple liquid phases). The Runge-Kutta numerical method was used in Mathcad. The dependency of rate contant as a function of temperature for the various equilibria was eventually determined. The second case study, butene oligomerization for jet fuel production, offered the audience a fascinating tale of process safety criticality as a function of reaction conditions. He used the method from Professor Francis Stoessel, Head of Chemical Process Safety Consulting at the Swiss Institute for the Promotion of Safety and Security in Basel, that is described in Stoessel’s 2008 book “Thermal Safety of Chemical Processes” (ISBN-10: 3527317120). Allen described the benefits of using iC Safety software to model the process criticality index.

Kaytlin Henry, Senior Engineer at Dow Chemical, gave us a compelling account for the use of mid-IR and Raman real time spectroscopy for the kinetic modeling of polymerization reactions, e.g. ethylene, propylene, and butylene oxides. The use of combined automated reactor technologies with real time monitoring provided a full kinetic model, eventually yielding shorter development time, and increased process productivity. I especially liked the part when Kaytlin described the use of closed loop control where in situ measurement directed the instantaneous relative addition rate of each individual monomer in order to control molecular weight distribution according to the Mayo-Lewis equation (instantaneous copolymer composition determination). This led to the remarkable ability to predict and control in real time the physical properties of the final copolymer product. Although this kind of control was straightforward to set up by Kaytlin at the liter scale, she mentioned it’s unfortunate that the same level of automated control is still extremely challenging to implement at plant scale.

Chemical R&D Houston

Kaytlin Henry of Dow Chemical

I had the pleasure to invite and introduce Jerry Salan, the third speaker, CEO and founder of NALAS Engineering, whom I have known for almost 10 years. Jerry briefly described the research services his company provides in process development and scale-up of fine and specialty chemicals, and then offered two case studies. The first one dealt with the scale-up and safety aspect a hydroboration – hydrolysis sequence. The goal was a scalable  process for a 3000-liter run.  Initial thermodynamic data collected on an RC1e reaction calorimeter provided enough process information to develop a heat transfer model for each step. I was especially interested in the resulting optimum non-linear dosing profile. Although unusual, it makes perfect sense to add slowly at the beginning when the reaction is fast and faster at the end when the reaction tends to slow down, in order to maintain a safe, productive, and cost-efficient process. I’ll definitely keep this in mind for future process development studies. The second study focused on one of Jerry’s fortes since his years developing explosives with the US Navy: 50-liter scale-up synthesis of a dinitropyrazine derivative. A high end modeling study including solubility, heat transfer, and rate, was made from initial process data collected on an RC1e equipped with a ReactIR probe. DSC and CRC90 data were also fed in to the model. AKTS software provided the kinetic model that enabled a decomposition reaction scenario to be predicted (Time to Maximum Rate TMR and TD24). As a result, facing a process deemed too hazardous to be run in a batch mode, Jerry and his colleagues proved that an alternative continuous nitration process would ensure a safe, reliable, and practical 50-liter scale-up.

Finally, John Tolsma from RES Group , a company that provides process modeling services to resolve engineering issues for energy, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies, gave us a great demonstration of his company’s capabilities on an ethylene-vinyl alcohol copolymer example. Faced with a process providing high molecular gel by-products yielding costly reaction shutdowns for cleaning, the RES team developed a comprehensive model based on RC1e reaction calorimeter, Raman, and infrared data including chemical kinetics and gel formation mechanism. It provided reaction rate prediction, including off-specs by-products, leading to a better understanding of the copolymer molecular structure and enhanced physical properties for the final material. A continuous process with two cascade stirred tank reactors (CSTR) was designed as a result that would offer the benefit of minimized off-specs product formation, and better cost-efficiency.

I would like to thank the participants and the speakers who made the conference a success. Two conference breaks and a networking reception gave ample opportunities for peer to peer interaction and some fun! For those of you who have not yet had a chance to participate in these one-day, no charge events, we are hosting two other events: La Jolla, CA on October 10 and Cambridge, MA on October 30.  Unlike the event in Houston, where most participants were from the chemical and petrochemical industries, the events in La Jolla and Cambridge are focused on fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.  We will also host several events in 2014.

I hope you’ll get a chance to join us next time. We look forward to meeting you!