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Five Considerations when Taking Green Chemistry from Lab to Scale
July 12, 2011 | By STEVE DONEN
by Steve Donen, vp./Process Development & Engineering, Rivertop Renewables
Often the greatest innovations take place in the laboratory, but as many innovators will tell you, there’s more to creating a new, successful chemical or product than breakthroughs in science and technology. As the economic and environmental benefits of green chemistry and biobased products are more widely recognized, we have seen a burst of new companies in this space with technologies poised to offer innovative solutions that are more sustainable and perform at equal or higher levels than incumbents. We now are beginning to see these young companies make the critical transition of bringing their green technologies out of the lab and into scaled-up production facilities. But the transition is full of many obstacles (and opportunities) that should be addressed before the scaling begins. Below are five points we should all consider when deciding to bring a new green chemical manufacturing process out of the lab and to scale.
1. Pure Product Problems
An important first step in protecting your newly developed process is obtaining a patent for your core reaction. This is a step that is rarely overlooked; however keeping an eye towards downstream processing is missed or underestimated by many. Keep in mind that you can rarely market a product without meeting significant purification steps of your customers, which typically require more processing steps that are often overlooked. Whether it’s getting your product to the desired concentration or removing unwanted impurities, these steps all require time and money to develop, along with addition capital and operating costs associated with these newly required steps. In fact, purification adjustments can add enough costs in capital, operating costs, and yield losses that many new developments may not be as feasible or profitable as initially thought. It is critical to address these issues from the outset.
2. Calculate the Costs (then increase it)
For any new green chemical to be a commercial success, the ultimate standard is profitability. With this in mind, it is imperative to accurately calculate the costs incurred as you scale up from the lab to industrial level production. All too often, these costs are drastically understated due to a lack of understanding of the effects of yield and volume. The basics of mass balances, feedstock costs, and yields are critical to accurately estimating your future costs. Even with full understanding of expected costs upon scaling, you are likely to run into unforeseen problems that will impact your well thought-out plans. Allow for flexibility in your budget by understanding sensitivities around mass balances, feedstock costs, along with the critical yields so that these types of cost issues are understood early and don’t surprise you later and impact your product’s profitability.
3. Plan for Product Development
It’s a fact of business that the most innovative and highest-quality product in the world doesn’t help your company if there’s no market for it. Proof of concept in the lab is just the first step in a long and complicated process to bring a new product to market and this step alone will take much longer than many predict. As you plan for larger scale production, expect the development process to vary, as iterative issues as seemingly trivial as color or concentration can send you back to the drawing board in order to meet customers’ requirements. Be prepared for this and adjust your initial timelines and development costs to include this iterative development processes.
4. Site for Scalability and Supply Chain
When developing production processes, the tendency has been to create a “proof of concept” process at small scale, then build a larger semi-works plant to run a fully recycle-integrated process to prove the technology, then a demonstration facility, and finally build a full commercial size facility to produce market-ready product. While this method is effective at limiting your fixed costs at the outset, the multiple step scale-up adds costs and time to the process development that inevitably cut into your margins along the way. It is important to understand the scalability of the various unit operations and build your first facility at a size that includes a fully-integrated continuous process that allows for one step between the lab and commercial scale. In a related matter, while it may appear obvious, when siting your facility you must consider the entire supply chain your process requires. The combined costs of sourcing raw materials, shipping product to your final customers, as well as local tax structures can combine to be more expensive than operating costs at world-scale commercial facilities. These are major issues in the biobased world, as mature low-cost supply chains only exist in wood, food products, and municipal solid waste. Even these feedstocks can be expensive as the percentage of water and non-fermentable products can have large impacts on your supply chain costs.
5. Importance of Impurities
Fully-integrated recycle streams increase yield and reduce waste in your process, but they can also wreak havoc with impurities and unwanted side reactions. When testing in the lab, impurities may only be present in minute amounts and more than likely are not identified at the lab scale. However, as recycle streams feed these initially minute impurities back into the production process, their concentration increases and can create an unstable system able to destroy a reaction or make downstream processing cost prohibitive. To protect against this type of mistake, it is important to build your first pilot or semi-works plant with fully-integrated recycle streams and invest in the analytics necessary to understand the impurity profiles. The presence of other potential impurities cannot be understated.
While these represent some of the most pressing issues to consider when taking an amazing idea from the lab to scale, there are of course many more related to process hazards, facility safety, and the impact of joint ventures or partnerships, just to name a few. The bottom line is to be flexible, think ahead and remember to keep your eye on your costs.
Rivertop Renewables is a renewable chemical company creating sustainable, biodegradable chemicals and bioproducts derived from renewable plant sugars.