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Microreactors & Process Intensification

Microreactors Make it Big: Can Micro- or Milli-Reactors be Used in Multi-Ton Production Plants?

| Author / Editor: Anne Kaaden, Dr.-Ing. Joachim Heck* / Dominik Stephan

In the detail: The integration of the continuously running Miprowa production reactor into the existing building infrastructure at Shaoxing Eastlake in China near Shanghai.
In the detail: The integration of the continuously running Miprowa production reactor into the existing building infrastructure at Shaoxing Eastlake in China near Shanghai. (Source: Ehrfeld; [M] Beeger)

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My, how you've grown! Micro- and millireactors bring process intensification in specialty chemistry and pharmacy — One of the current challenges facing the process industry is a change in product portfolio away from commodities to customer-specific specialties. The paradigm shift in process technology production from the batch principle to the continuous flow process based on micro- and millireactors offers great advantages in many cases and is now showing initial success on an industrial scale.

Flow chemistry or microreaction technology (MRT) is a technology platform that has the potential to offer tremendous benefits in many process engineering applications. MRT is able to replace discontinuous batch processes with a continuous process in which reactions take place in structures of greatly reduced size. The main components are mixers with excellent mixing speed and heat exchangers with high heat transfer rates. Added to this is the associated support infrastructure, such as sensors, valves, pumps or analytics.

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With the help of microreaction technology, complex or challenging reactions can be precisely controlled, which can, for example, help to increase the safety of chemical production. In addition, plants can be built smaller, realized with lower investment and operated more efficiently. A particular advantage lies in the high specific surface to volume ratio of the micromodules, resulting in excellent heat and mass transport properties.

Development of Micro-Reaction Technology (MRT)

The beginning of the technology platform microreaction technology goes back to about 1995, when Prof. Wolfgang Ehrfeld, at that time director of the Institute of Microtechnology in Mainz, Germany, raised the question: If the topic “micro” in microelectronics has led to such enormous increases in performance and innovations, why should this not be possible in the area of process technologies? He invited representatives of chemical, pharmaceutical and automotive industries to an industrial consortium to explore the potential of micro-process technology.

Trials showed that it was possible to achieve significantly higher yields for the raw materials when using mixers with microchannels than with established technology for a selected example reaction (the Andrussow reaction for hydrocyanic acid production in the gas phase). From that day, Ehrfeld took over the baton as a pioneer for this technology platform.

In 1997, the first IMRET, the International Conference on Microreaction Technology, took place — marking the start of a new tradition. In fact, 2017 saw the 14th IMRET in Beijing, PR China. With the first conference, the Chemical Engineering and Technical Chemistry community started a wave on process intensification with microreaction technology as an important aspect. Many companies and research institutes recognized the enormous opportunities and potentials offered by microreaction technology and the associated process intensification. As a result, first test balloons of MRT were used in various development laboratories and chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants.

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Process Intensification and other Benefits of MRT

Flow Chemistry creates a fundamentally new process environment. Better process control and significant miniaturization of reactive volumes are the key elements of MRT. The focus is on better mixing and superior temperature control with barely measurable temperature gradients across the entire reaction volume — conditions that are almost impossible to achieve in a classic batch reactor.

Another advantage is that the reaction parameters can be better adapted, resulting in higher purity, yields, and selectivity. The small reactor volumes in the Flow Chemistry/MRT also allow the extension of physical process conditions to higher or lower temperatures or pressures in a simultaneously safe and fully controlled unit. The most important advantages of continuous operation in micro- and millireactors are these:

  • ultrafast mixing
  • highly efficient heat transfer
  • short defined residence times
  • easy process control due to low system inertia
  • high operational reliability due to minimal hold-up
  • short development times

Particularly in the case of fast, highly exothermic reactions with explosive or toxic substances, these properties of the continuous flow reactors are advantageously noticeable. Because of the high security risk, these processes either cannot be handled in batch reactors or often are difficult to handle.

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Economic benefits resulting from this technology are in particular:

  • high yield
  • lower proportion of by-products
  • improved product quality
  • sustainable plant safety
  • lower energy consumption and lower carbon footprint

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