IHS Chemical Week


Batch processing essential to the success of specialty chemical manufacturing


When it comes to batch processing, those of us in the industry clearly understand the crucial role this process plays in manufacturing specialty chemicals. However, outside the industry we are finding there is a lack of understanding, or maybe appreciation, about how important batch processing is to the innovative nature of our unique sector, or the measures our member companies and other manufacturers implement to insure its safety. As the primary advocate and voice for specialty chemical makers, it is incumbent upon us to educate regulatory agencies, members of Congress and the public about specialty chemicals, the process in which they are made, and the important role they play in everything we do.

Batch processing is the manufacturing method in which two or more chemicals are reacted in a system to yield a specific chemical compound. This is a single reaction that has a distinct beginning and end.

Batch processing is not just used by specialty chemical makers. It’s a common method used for many everyday tasks. For example, people safely make cookies in batches and wash clothes through a process of temperature and pressure change and time considerations, yet they don’t make the correlation between those batch processes and the ones used by chemical makers.

Specialty chemicals touch almost every aspect of our lives and are used in a myriad of end-use markets, including pharmaceuticals, textiles, construction, cleaners, electronics, personal care products, flavors and fragrances, coatings, agriculture, and much more. This unique niche in the chemical industry is innovative, entrepreneurial and consumer-driven.

There is also a distinct difference between specialty and commodity chemicals. Specialty chemicals are sold on the basis of their performance, or function, rather than their composition. They can be single-chemical entities or formulations (combinations of several chemicals) whose composition sharply influences the performance and processing of the customer’s product. These products and services require intensive knowledge and ongoing innovation.

Just recently, SOCMA had an opportunity to discuss batch processing and process safety with key officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s Assistant Administrator responsible for many regulations governing batch operations. SOCMA’s Environment Committee hosted a 90-minute meeting at the agency’s headquarters here in Washington with more than a dozen representatives from SOCMA member companies and our staff in attendance The purpose of this meeting was to educate the EPA on the importance of batch chemistry as changes are being considered to its Risk Management Program.

So why do specialty chemical manufacturers use batch processing? There’s not enough product demand to use a continuous process. Brenda Seggerman of Hydrite shared a great example at the meeting with EPA of an adhesive her company makes that is used in cell phone manufacturing. Since just one drop of the adhesive is needed in each cell phone, only small quantities are required for the customer, and thus, batch processing is used.

Batch processing allows our members to make different products in the same reactor or system, and a batch producer can make hundreds of different chemicals in a given year. It is also more practical and feasible for multi-step synthesis, and it allows chemists to maximize the yield of a desired compound, which reduces waste. Batch processing can also reduce the overall process complexity. 

SOCMA Environment Committee Chairman Seth Levine of Cambrex noted during our conversation with EPA how customer-specific quality requirements often depend upon the isolation of batches prior to further processing that is only possible in multiple batch trains versus a single-continuous approach. 

Another great example was shared at the agency meeting by Jere Ellison of Ashland. Batch processing is used for Ashland’s hair care and crop care lines. He told EPA officials the overall low product volume and reaction parameters of time, temperature, and ingredient integration are not easily duplicated in continuous systems. Reactor systems are specifically designed for this class of performance materials, and versatile reactor systems easily accommodate making other products when they are not producing the hair care and crop care products. 

Joe Dettinger of Bimax said his company uses batch processing because small volume products are not compatible with continuous processing. Start up and wind down material losses result in poor economics and increased waste. And, continuous processing is not flexible and only produces one grade. Bimax, which makes contact lenses safer, healthier and more comfortable by enhancing oxygen permeability, among many other products, needs to produce a number of different grades to meet customer, application and regulatory requirements.

But first and foremost, these specialty chemical manufacturers seek to make their products safely. SOCMA’s manufacturing members are required to participate and follow process safety requirements outlined in our environmental, health, safety and security (EHS&S) program, ChemStewards. These companies all have stringent process safety protocols in place for all of their products and participate in third-party audits, among other requirements essential to plant operation safety.

David Mielke of SOCMA member ChemDesign, a contract manufacturer of specialty chemicals, told EPA his company is an extension of its customers; hence there is a need for the same, or even better, standards for manufacture, safety and environmental compliance. ChemDesign is committed to maintaining industry-leading environmental standards set out in SOCMA’s EHS&S program.

Bottom line, batch processing is a safe manufacturing method that is essential to the economic and overall success of the specialty chemical sector.

Lawrence D. Sloan is President and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufactures and Affiliates (SOCMA), the leading trade association serving the specialty chemical industry.

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