Milestone Separation Technology
Exclusive-Interview: Milestone Separation Technology “Every new Plant Is Packed with Innovation Potential”
At the start of 2020, Gea embarked on a new course — two functional business areas were divided into five divisions, including Liquid & Powder Technologies with the business unit Chemical Technologies (BU CT). Dr. Christopher Braun, who has been managing the business of Gea Wiegand for 19 years, is expecting this to deliver clearer responsibilities. He believes that areas of growth for thermal separation technology will be found particularly in attractive niche markets.
PROCESS: A number of things are changing at Gea. But there is certainly no change in the primary goal, which is stated on the Gea website: to be the first choice for its customers around the world. But that is easier said than done. How exactly are you going to make it happen?
Dr. Christopher Braun: Our customers set very high standards for us. And we want to meet them. In many areas we are the market and technology leader, and this with an extremely wide product portfolio. The fact that we also have the capability to develop the corresponding processes makes us more or less unique. For example, we have more than ten Process Test Centers available for separation technology tasks. In addition, over the course of the last five years we have strengthened our presence worldwide as part of our “OneGEA” strategy.
PROCESS: How does it benefit your customers that you now have five divisions again instead of the two before?
Braun: Well, more than anything else they shouldn’t see any deterioration. Similar to the pre-2015 structure, the responsibilities are divisional. Our Liquid & Powder Technology division corresponds almost completely to the earlier Process division. Something that is positive for many customers worldwide is the strengthening of our national companies, the structure of which has been preserved. They have widened their know-how in sales, distribution, and service. The chemical industry, which is one of our target groups, will notice this particularly in large countries like the USA or China. In view of the fact that customers need a lot of advice on the products of our business unit, smaller national companies will continue to consult specialists from our technology centers.
PROCESS: Where is Gea positioned in the market for separation solutions today?
Braun: We distinguish between thermal and mechanical separation technology, which is primarily at home with Gea Westfalia Separator. In the area of thermal separation technology, we can serve almost all unit operations and design complete processing lines ourselves. As a result, our customers can rest assured that we will always offer solutions that are best suited to their requirements, for example for evaporation, crystallization, or distillation. Individually I don’t see us as the market leader for any of these technologies. However, unlike our competitors, we can more or less completely cover the full classic portfolio of applications in the chemical industry — as a solution provider for a wide range of very diverse production processes. This applies similarly to other separation technologies, such as exhaust gas cleaning or drying.
PROCESS: Where do you see the main focus of your growth strategy in terms of applications and sub-sectors within the chemical industry?
Braun: With our thermal separation technology solutions, we have a strong footing in fermentation-based applications such as the production of basic ingredients for bioplastics, but also of food additives like citric acid and amino acids, which are all manufactured from renewable raw materials. Even if things have gone rather quiet in the field of white biotechnology in the face of falling oil prices — this still has great potential for the future. Since the global population continues to grow at a rapid rate, agricultural chemistry is also becoming more important, in particular for high-end fertilizers like water-soluble phosphates (MAP). We offer the necessary equipment like evaporators, crystallizers, spray driers and fluidized bed driers. In general, we tend to primarily serve niche markets, who can trust in the know-how of our specialists.
PROCESS: Are you also profiting from the trend toward e-mobility?
Braun: Our technologies for separation, evaporation, crystallization, drying etc. are needed for the production of lithium compounds. For example, we recently delivered two spodumene processing lines to a lithium mine in Australia. In addition, Gea is the global leader in the area of spray drying for powders for lithium batteries. Here again, the ability to individually design bespoke processes in our pilot plants makes a decisive difference. So we are in a strong position to benefit from this trend. But at the moment it is not yet clear whether lithium will indeed establish itself as a storage material. In addition, the price of lithium is subject to major fluctuations. In view of the undecidedness of many car manufacturers when it comes to e-mobility, it is difficult to gage how this market will develop.
PROCESS: Is it necessary to change your innovation strategy?
Braun: We are very sensitive to this issue, as innovation is the key to our continued existence. If everyone else is moving on and developing, then it is absolutely vital that we do not stand still. Otherwise you end up not being attractive enough anymore. We need to think about innovation processes, systematize them and deliver them in a structured manner so that an effect is felt in terms of our stock price. Innovation is a very strong driving force for us.
PROCESS: Thermal separation technologies have already been established for a long time. How much scope is there for innovation?
Braun: We are not going to reinvent the world of thermal separation technology. But there is room for innovation in the combination of existing technologies and on the control technology side. What currently goes under the name of Industry 4.0 is something we have already been doing for a long time. Our specialists are among the pioneers of the so-called digital twin. This is what has made it possible for us to replicate plants for simulation and training purposes. There are also promising Industry 4.0 approaches for the service sector. However, from my point of view this is not really a revolution — rather a continuation of existing technologies. Process engineering is a very interesting business, and the fact that basically every new plant is packed with innovation potential is a key part of this. For example, because we have to take into account the properties of raw materials that might have a slightly different composition to what we are used to.
PROCESS: In which markets do you expect your business unit to continue to grow?
Braun: In all of them — we are trying to adapt to the markets. If, like a few years ago, refineries need to be upgraded or refurbished, we are happy to contribute with our vacuum technology. Similarly, we were also involved when many steel mills invested in degassing systems. Renewables are a further example — this was a lucrative market until oil prices started to slide. But I hope that things will improve here. And then we will be ready to score with our know-how — from fermentation to crystallization and the drying of the end product. Sustainability is a topic that yields important drivers for our business.
PROCESS: You also offer plants for industrial wastewater treatment. Are these profitable?
Braun: We can treat wastewater all the way to Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) solutions. This makes great sense particularly for the environment if we can recover process water. But this requires energy input and needs to be financed by the value of the resources produced in the process. However, many customers are backing away in view of the investment and operating costs involved. Instead, we need to develop solutions for reducing wastewater that are the best from both a technical and a macroeconomic point of view — and these will often take the form of hybrid processes, e.g. a combination of diaphragm systems with evaporators. ZLD also makes great sense particularly if recyclable materials are recovered in the process.
PROCESS: Mr. Braun, thank you for the interview.